Where did I go wrong? Was it playing percussion with an Occupy Wall Street band in Times Square when I was in New York recently? Or was it when I returned to my peaceful new home in Oslo and deleted an email invitation to hear Newt Gingrich lecture Norwegians on the American election? (Yes, even here.)
I don’t know how it happened. Or even, really, what happened. Or what it means. So I’ve got no point — only a lot of anxiety. I usually write about the problems of the world, but now I’ve got one of my own. They evidently think I’m a terrorist.
That is, someone in the U.S. government who specializes in finding terrorists seems to have found me and laid a heavy hand on my bank account. I think this is wrong, of course, but try to tell that to a faceless, acronymic government agency.
It all started with a series of messages from my bank: Citibank. Yeah, I know, I should have moved my money long ago, but in the distant past before Citibank became Citigroup, it was my friendly little neighborhood bank, and I guess I’m in a rut. Besides, I learned when I made plans to move to Norway that if your money is in a small bank, it has to be sent to a big bank like Citibank or Chase to wire it to you when you need it, which meant I was trapped anyway.
So the first thing I noticed was that one of those wires with money I needed never arrived. When I politely inquired, Citibank told me that the transaction hadn’t gone through. Why not? All my fault, they insisted, for not having provided complete information. Long story short: we went round and round for a couple of weeks, as I coughed up ever more morsels of previously unsolicited personal information. Only then did a bit of truth emerge.
The bank wasn’t actually holding up the delivery of the money. The funds had, in fact, left my account weeks before, along with a wire transfer fee. The responsible party was OFAC.
Oh what? I wondered. OFAC. It rhymes with Oh-Tack, but you’ve got to watch how you pronounce it. Speak carelessly and the name sounds like just what you might say upon learning that you’ve been sucked into the ultimate top-secret bureaucratic sinkhole. It turns out, the bank informs me, that OFAC is a division of the U.S. Treasury Department that “reviews” transactions.
“Why me?” I ask. As a long-time reporter I find it a strange question, as strange as finding myself working on a story about me.
By way of an answer, the bank refers me to an Internet link that calls up a 521-page report so densely typed it looks like wallpaper. Entitled “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons,” it turns out to be a list of what seems to be every Muslim business and social organization on the planet. That’s when I Google OFAC, go to its site, and find out that the acronym stands for the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Its mission description reads chillingly. It “administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.” And it turns out to be a subsidiary of something much bigger that goes by the unnerving name of “Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.”
Off With Her Head
Whoa! Perhaps it doesn’t help, at this moment, that I’ve just been reading Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, the scary new book by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin about our multiple, overfed, overzealous, highly-classified intelligence agencies, staffed in significant part not by civil servants but by profit-making private contractors. Suddenly, I feel myself in the grip of the national post-9/11 paranoia that hatched all that new “security.” (And you, too, could find yourself in my shoes fast.)
I check OFAC’s list more carefully. It’s in a kind of alphabetical order, but with significant incomprehensible diversions — and if my name is there, I sure can’t find it. Since I’ve spent most of the last decade working with international aid organizations as well as reporting from some of the more strife-ridden lands on the planet, including Afghanistan, the only thing I can imagine is that maybe all those odd visas in my fat passport raised a red flag somewhere in Washington.
Next, I search for the name of my Norwegian landlady. Did I say that the wired funds that never arrived were meant to pay her my rent? She’s in India, a volunteer health-care worker with Tibetan refugees, currently helping refurbish an orphanage for 144 kids. (What could be more suspicious than that?) I can’t find her name either. No Anns or Heidis at all, in fact, among the raft of Mohammads and Abduls.
Heidi is a Buddhist. I’m an atheist. Almost everybody on the list seems to be Muslim, including really dangerous-sounding guys like “Ahmed the Egyptian.” But I guess that to a truly committed and well-paid terrorist hunter, we must all look alike.
I’m desperate to get the rent to Heidi so she can cover her own expenses as a volunteer; an international organization pays for the children’s needs, but Heidi does the work. So I call the American Embassy in Oslo and speak to a nice young woman in the section devoted to “American Citizen Services.” I tell her about me and OFAC and Ahmed the Egyptian. She says, “I’ve never heard of such a thing. But there are so many of these intelligence offices now, I guess I’ll be hearing these stories more often.” (Maybe she’s been reading Top Secret America, too.)
She takes it up with her superiors and calls me back. The Embassy can’t help me, citizen or not, she says, because they don’t handle money matters and have nothing to do with the Treasury Department.
“What? The State Department doesn’t deal with the Treasury?”
“No,” she says, “I guess not.”
Perhaps since I last paid attention the Treasury stopped being considered part of the government. Maybe it now belongs to Lockheed Martin.
At least the State Department has some compassion left in it. If I’m really destitute, she assures me, the Embassy might be able to give me a loan to pay for a plane ticket that would get my two cats and me back to the States. I guess it doesn’t occur to her that under the circumstances I might feel more secure in Norway.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Still, all I want to do is clear up this mess, so I put my head in the lion’s mouth and send an email directly to OFAC. I tell them that I’m in Norway for the year on a Fulbright grant as a researcher — that is, as part of an international exchange program founded by a U.S. Senator and sponsored by the U.S. Government, or at least one part of the State Department part of it. Among my informal responsibilities, I add, is to be a goodwill ambassador for the United States, but I’m finding it really hard to explain to Norwegians that I can’t pay my rent because a bunch of terrorist-trackers in the pay of my government have made off with the money and left nothing behind but a list of Muslim names.
Remarkably quickly OFAC itself writes back, giving me the creepy feeling that it was lurking behind the door the whole time. It is sorry that I am “frustrated.” It will help me, but only if I supply a whole long list of information, mostly the same stuff I have already provided three times to the bank, the same information the bank later said wasn’t the issue after all. (Still later, the bank would say that I had given not too little information, but too much.) I send the requested tidbits back to “Dear OFAC Functionary or Machine as the case may be.”
Two days later comes another message from OFAC, this time signed by “Michael Z.” Like Afghans, or spies, he evidently has only one name, but my hopes that he might be an actual person inexplicably rise anyway — only to sink again when he claims OFAC needs yet more information. All this so that Michael Z., presumed person, may help me “more effectively.” (More than what, I wonder?) He is, he insists, trying to locate my money with the help of my bank, which by the way is now blocking me from seeing information about my own account online.
It seems odd to me that this top-secret office of Financial Intelligence somehow can’t manage to lay hands on the money it snatched from me, but what do I know? I’m just a citizen.
Then — are you ready for this? — comes what should be a happy ending. A message from the bank tells me that the money has slipped through after all, and sure enough there it is at last in a Norwegian bank, only a month late. I won’t be evicted after all, and Heidi will make sure those Tibetan kids get some fresh fruit and brand new bright green curtains.
Still, this is not a cheery story. So I have to send my apologies to the long-dead Senator J. William Fulbright: I’m sorry indeed that certain changes in the spirit and operations of the United States have occurred since that day in 1948 when you launched your farsighted program of grants to encourage open international educational and cultural exchange. And I apologize that some of those changes may have temporarily cramped my style as a goodwill ambassador; I’ll try to get back on the job if I can just figure out what hit me.
Was this all simply a mistake? A technical glitch? An error at the bank? I’d like to think so, but what about that list of “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons”? Why was I directed to that? And what about Michael Z., who presumably is some kind of intelligence analyst at OFAC and who, when last heard from, was still seeking information and trying to find the money?
Frankly, this month-long struggle has left me mighty tired and uneasy. Right now, Senator Fulbright, I’m lying low, down here at the bottom of the rabbit hole, trying to make sense of things. (I took a last look at the “Blocked Persons” list, and just this week it’s grown by another page.) So I want to tell you the truth, Senator, and I think that with your great interest in peaceable international relations, you just may understand. Strange as it may seem, since I’ve been hunkered down here in the rabbit hole, I’ve worked up some sympathy for Ahmed the Egyptian who, I have a sneaking feeling, could be down here, too. It’s hard to tell when you’re kept in the dark, but maybe he’s just another poor sap like me, snarled in the super-secret security machine.
Ann Jones is in Norway under the auspices of the Fulbright Scholar Program, researching the Norwegian economic, social, and cultural arrangements that cause it to be named consistently by the United Nations as the best place to live on earth. A TomDispatch regular, she is the author of Kabul in Winter (2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (2010).
Copyright 2011 Ann Jones
Me and OFAC and Ahmed the Egyptian
Looking for a way out of Afghanistan? Maybe it’s time to try something entirely new and totally different. So how about putting into action, for the first time in recorded history, the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council: Resolution 1325?
Passed on October 31, 2000, more than a decade ago, that “landmark” resolution was hailed worldwide as a great “victory” for women and international peace and security. In a nutshell, SCR 1325 calls for women to participate equally and fully at decision-making levels in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and reconstruction. Without the active participation of women in peacemaking every step of the way, the Security Council concluded, no just and durable peace could be achieved anywhere.
“Durable” was the key word. Keep it in mind.
Most hot wars of recent memory, little and big, have been resolved or nudged into remission through what is called a power-sharing agreement. The big men from most or all of the warring parties — and war is basically a guy thing, in case you hadn’t noticed — shoulder in to the negotiating table and carve up a country’s or region’s military, political, and financial pie. Then they proclaim the resulting deal “peace.”
But as I learned firsthand as an aid worker in one so-called post-conflict country after another, when the men in power stop shooting at each other, they often escalate the war against civilians — especially women and girls. It seems to be hard for men to switch off violence, once they’ve gotten the hang of it. From Liberia to Myanmar, rape, torture, mutilation, and murder continue unabated or even increase in frequency. In other words, from the standpoint of civilians, war is often not over when it’s “over,” and the “peace” is no real peace at all. Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the notorious “rape capital of the world,” where thousands upon thousands of women are gang-raped again and again although the country has officially been at “peace” since 2003.
In addition, power-sharing agreements among combatants tend to fray, and half of them unravel into open warfare again within a few years. Consider Liberia throughout the 1990s, Angola in 1992 and 1998, Cambodia in 1997, and Iraq in 2006-2007. At this moment, we are witnessing the breakdown of one power-sharing agreement in the Ivory Coast, and certainly the femicidal consequences of another, made in 2001, in Afghanistan.
It is this repeated recourse to war and the unrelenting abuse and neglect of civilians during fleeting episodes of “peace” that prompted the Security Council to seek the key to more durable solutions. They recognized that men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth — notably control of a country’s natural resources — while women included at any level of negotiations commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil society. Women are concerned about their children and consequently about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, health care, education, and the like — all those things that make life livable for peaceable men, women, and children anywhere.
The conclusion is self-evident. Bring women to the table in decision-making roles in equal numbers with male participants and the nature of peace negotiations changes altogether. And so does the result. Or at least that’s what the Security Council expects. We can’t be sure because in more than a decade since SCR 1325 was enacted, it has never been put to the test.
At the time, at the exhilarating dawn of a new millennium, the whole world applauded SCR 1325 as a great achievement of the United Nations, pointing the pathway to world peace. Later, when men in war-torn countries negotiated peace, often with the guidance of the U.N., they forgot all about it. Their excuse was that they had to act fast, speed being more important than justice or durability or women. At critical times like that, don’t you know, women just get in the way.
Peace? Not a Chance
My special concern is Afghanistan, and I’m impatient. I’d like a speedy conclusion, too. It’s been nine years since I started doing aid work there, and in that time several of the young Afghan women who were my colleagues and became my friends have died of illnesses they would have survived in better times under the auspices of a government that cared about the welfare of its citizens. Even its women citizens.
Yet now, whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation of SCR 1325 to American big men — thinkers, movers, and shakers — who lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object. They know the theory, they say, but practice is something else again, and they are precluded from throwing their weight behind SCR 1325 by delicate considerations of “cultural relativism.” Afghanistan, they remind me, is a “traditional” culture that regards women as less than human. As Westerners, they say, we must be particularly careful to respect that view.
Yet the eagerness of Western men to defer to this “tradition” seems excessive, and their tenderness for the sentiments of bearded men who couldn’t clear airport security in Iowa City strikes me as deliberately obtuse, especially since very few of the Afghan men who actually governed Afghanistan between 1919 and 1989 would have shared their sentiments.
Afghan culture is — and is not — traditional. Modern ideas, including the idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of internal Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century. In the 1920s, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women’s complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy, cast away the burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as “bad and evil persons” who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals of Afghanistan. His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Afghans still remember Amanullah and his modern, unveiled Queen Suraya for their brave endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.
Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared King Amanullah’s modern views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists alike. But at least since 1979, when the United States and Saudi Arabia joined Pakistan in promoting the ideology and military skill of Islamist extremists who sought to return the country to the seventh-century world of the prophet, Afghanistan’s liberal modernists have taken flight for North America, Europe, and Australia.
Last summer in Afghanistan I talked with many progressive men and women who were running for parliament, hoping to push back against the inordinate power of the Afghan executive in the person of President Hamid Karzai. To them, he seems increasingly eager to do deals with the most extreme Islamists in opposition to all their progressive dreams for their country.
Yet in August, when President Karzai flagrantly stole the presidential election, President Obama telephoned to congratulate him and the U.S. officially pronounced the fraudulent election results “good enough.” We might ask: In this contest between entrenched Islamist extremists and progressives who favor equality and democracy, why is the United States on the wrong side? Why are we on the side of a mistaken notion of Afghan “tradition”?
Our Big Man in Kabul
In 2001, the U.S. and by extension the entire international community cast their lot with Hamid Karzai. We put him in power after one of those power-sharing conferences in Bonn, Germany, to which, by the way, only two Afghan women were invited. We paid hundreds of millions of dollars to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and looked the other way while Karzai’s men stuffed the ballot boxes. Now, it seems, we’re stuck with him and his misogynist “traditions,” even though a growing number of Afghanistan watchers identify the Karzai government as the single greatest problem the U.S. faces in its never-ending war.
We could have seen this coming if we had kept an eye on how President Karzai treats women. George W. Bush famously claimed to have “liberated” the women of Afghanistan, but he missed one: Hamid Karzai’s wife. Although she is a gynecologist with desperately needed skills, she is kept shut up at home. To this day, the president’s wife remains the most prominent woman in Afghanistan still living under house rules established by the Taliban. That little detail, by the way, should remind you of why you ought to care what happens to women: they are the canaries in the Afghan political coal mine.
And what has President Karzai done for the rest of the women of Afghanistan? Not a thing.
That’s the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), an association of prominent aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan, including such highly respected non-governmental organizations as Oxfam, CARE, and Save the Children. The Afghan researchers who did the study conducted extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male political leaders, and female leaders locally, provincially, and nationally.
The report notes that President Karzai has supported increasingly repressive laws against women, most notoriously the “Taliban-style” Shia Personal Status Law, enacted in 2009, which not only legitimizes marital rape but “prevents women from stepping out of their homes” without their husband’s consent, in effect depriving them of the right to make any decisions about their own lives. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic freedoms guaranteed to all citizens in the Afghan Constitution, which was passed in 2004 as part of a flurry of democratic reforms marking the start of Karzai’s first term as elected president. The democratizing spasm passed and President Karzai, sworn to defend that Constitution, failed to do the job.
In fact, Karzai’s record on human rights, as the HRRAC report documents, is chiefly remarkable for what he has not done. He holds extraordinary power to make political appointments — another indicator of the peculiar nature of this Afghan “democracy” our troops are fighting for — and he has now had almost 10 years in office, ample time to lead even the most reluctant traditional society toward more equitable social arrangements. Yet today, but one cabinet ministry is held by a woman, the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, which incidentally is the sole government ministry that possesses only advisory powers. Karzai has appointed just one female provincial governor, and 33 men. (Is it by chance that Bamyan — the province run by that woman — is generally viewed as the most peaceful in the country?) To head city governments nationwide, he has named only one female mayor. And to the Supreme Court High Council he has appointed no woman at all.
Karzai’s claim that he can’t find qualified women is a flimsy — and traditional — excuse. Many of his highest-ranking appointees to government offices are notorious war criminals, men considered by the great majority of Afghan citizens to have disqualified themselves from public office. The failure of many of his male appointees to govern honestly and justly, or even to show up for work at all, is a rising complaint of NATO commanders who find upon delivery of “government in a box” that the box is pretty much empty.
If fully qualified women are in short supply, having been confined and deprived for years thanks to armed combat and the Taliban government, isn’t that all the more reason for a president sworn to uphold equality to act quickly to insure broad opportunities for education, training, jobs, and the like? The HRRAC report sensibly recommends “broad sociopolitical reform” to provide “education and economic opportunities for real women’s leadership.” Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former minister of finance, former president of Kabul University, and presidential contender, spoke in favor of such a “sensible and regular process.” As he noted, however, “Our government is not a sensible government.”
Flimsy, too, is the argument that Afghanistan’s cultural traditions eliminate women from public service. Uzra Jafari, the mayor of Daikundi, reports that the city’s inhabitants did not believe a woman could be a mayor, but they soon “accepted that a woman can serve them better than a man.” “Social obstacles can be overcome,” she says, “but the main problem is the political obstacles. We have problems at the highest levels.” The problem, in other words, is President Karzai, the only person in Afghanistan who has the power to install women in political offices and yet refuses to do so. In short, the president is far more “traditional” than most of the people.
Without the support of male leadership, women leaders (and their families) become easy targets for harassment, threats, intimidation, and assassination. When such threats come from the ultra-Islamist men who dominate the Afghan parliament, they prevent women parliamentarians from uniting in support of women and, in most cases, from speaking out as individuals for women’s rights. Death threats have a remarkable silencing effect, disrupting the processes of governance, yet President Karzai has not once taken a stand against the terrorist tactics of his cronies.
The Brotherhood of Men
Let’s acknowledge that there are limits to what the West can and cannot do in the very different and more traditional culture of Afghanistan. Judging by what we have already done, it seems to be perfectly all right for the West — aka the U.S. — to rain bombs upon this agrarian country, with its long tradition of moderate Sufism, and impose an ultraconservative Islamist government and free market capitalism (even at the expense of indigenous agricultural markets) through the ministrations of thousands of highly paid private American “technical assistants.” But it is apparently not okay for any of those multitudinous, extravagantly paid American political and economic consultants to tweak the silken sleeve of President Karzai’s chapan and say, “Hamid, my man, you’ve gotta get some more women in here.” That would be disrespectful of Afghan traditions.
I don’t buy it. What we’re up against is not just the intractable misogyny of President Karzai and other powerful mullahs and mujahideen, but the misogyny of power brokers in Washington as well.
Take, for example, the second most popular objection I hear from American male experts on Afghanistan when I raise my modest proposal. They call this one “pragmatic” or “realistic.” Women can’t come to the negotiating table, they say, because the Taliban would never sit down with them. In fact, Taliban, “ex-Taliban,” and Taliban sympathizers sit down with women every day in the Afghan Parliament, as they have in occasional loya jirgas (deliberating assemblies) since 2001. Clearly, any Taliban who refuse altogether to talk with women disqualify themselves as peace negotiators and should have no place at the table. But what’s stunning about the view of the American male experts is that it comes down on the other side, ceding to the most extreme Taliban misogynists the right to exclude from peace deliberations half the population of the country. (Tell that to our women soldiers putting their lives on the line.)
Yet these days every so-called Afghanistan expert in Washington has a plan for the future of the country. Some seem relatively reasonable while others are certifiably delusional, but what almost all of these documents have in common is the absence of the word “women.” (There are a few tiny but notable exceptions.)
In the Loony Tunes category is former diplomat and National Security Council Deputy Robert D. Blackwill’s “Plan B in Afghanistan” appearing in Foreign Affairs, which calls for the U.S. military to flee the south, thus creating a “de facto partition” of Afghanistan and incidentally abandoning — you guessed it — “the women of those areas,” as well as anyone else in the south who wants “to resist the Taliban.” This scenario may call to mind images of helicopters departing the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, but Blackwill clings to his “strategy,” calling the grim fate of those left behind “a tragic consequence of local realities that are impossible for outsiders to change.”
In the relatively reasonable category is the plan of the Afghanistan Study Group: “A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan.” Its first recommendation says, “The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.” Whoops! No mention of women there. And power sharing? We know where that’s headed. Afghanistan, the undisputed small arms capital of the world, might easily spontaneously combust into civil war.
But what becomes of women? Even Matthew Hoh, who resigned his position in 2009 as a political officer in the foreign service to protest U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and now heads the Afghanistan Study Group, can’t seem to imagine bringing women to the negotiating table. (He says he’s “working on it.”) Instead, the Study Group decides for women that “this strategy will best serve [their] interests.” It declares that “the worst thing for women is for Afghanistan to remain paralyzed in a civil war in which there evolves no organically rooted support for their social advancement.” Well, no. Actually, the worst thing for women is to have a bunch of men — and not even Afghan men at that — decide one more time what’s best for women.
I wonder if it’s significant that the Afghan Study Group, much like the Bonn Conference that established the Karzai government in the first place, is essentially a guy club. I count three women among 49 men and the odd “center” or “council” (also undoubtedly consisting mostly of men). When I asked Matthew Hoh why there are so few women in the Study Group, he couldn’t help laughing. He said, “This is Washington. You go to any important meeting in Washington, it’s men.”
Maybe the heady atmosphere engendered by all those gatherings of suits in close quarters was what inspired Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to abandon all discretion recently and declare that the promise of equal protection in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not extend to protecting women against sex discrimination. If states enact laws discriminating against women, he opined, such laws would not be unconstitutional. (You can be sure some legislators have gotten right to work on it.)
That opinion puts Justice Scalia cozily in bed with former Chief Justice Shinwari, President Karzai’s first appointee to head the Supreme Court of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who interpreted Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution, which calls for men and women to have equal rights and responsibilities before the law, to mean that men have rights and women have responsibilities to their husbands. (Could this mean that the United States is a traditional culture, too?)
Women leaders in Afghanistan complain that their government does not see them as “human,” but merely uses them as tokens or symbols, presumably to appease those international donors who still rattle on about human rights. George W. Bush used Afghan women that way. Obama doesn’t mention them. Here in the U.S. you take your choice between cynical exploitation, utter neglect, and outright discrimination.
In Afghanistan, Karzai names a High Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban. Sixty men. The usual suspects: warlords, Wahhabis, mujahideen, long-bearded and long in the tooth, but fighting for power to the bitter end. Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network reports that among them are 53 men linked to armed factions in the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s including 13 linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, currently allied with the Taliban. An additional 12 members of the High Peace Council held positions in the Taliban’s Emirate government between 1996 and 2001.
Under some international pressure, Karzai belatedly added 10 women, the only members of the High Peace Council with no ties to armed militias past or present; they represent the interests of civil society, which is to say the people who might actually like to live in peace for a change and do their utmost to sustain it. The U.S. signed off on this lopsided Council. So did Hillary Clinton, a woman who, as Secretary of State, has solemnly promised again and again never to abandon the women of Afghanistan, though she never remembers to invite them to a conference where international and Afghan men decide the future of their country.
Okay, so my modest proposal doesn’t stand a chance. The deck is stacked against the participation of women, both there and here. Even I don’t expect men in power to take seriously the serious proposition that women must be equally and fully involved in peacemaking or you don’t get durable peace. Too many men, both Afghan and American, are doing very nicely thank you with the present traditional arrangements of our cultures. So, searching blindly for some eventual exit and burdened by their misbegotten notions of “peace,” U.S. and NATO officials busy themselves repeatedly transporting to Kabul, at vast expense, a single high-ranking Taliban mullah to negotiate secret peace and power-sharing deals with President Karzai. American officials tout these man-to-man negotiations as evidence that U.S. strategy is finally working, until the “mullah” turns out to be an imposter playing a profitable little joke on the powers that be. Afghan women, who already suffer the effects of rising Taliban power, are not laughing.
Consider this. We’re not just talking about women’s rights here. Women’s rights are human rights. Women exercising their human rights are simply women engaging in those things that men the world over take for granted: going to school, going to work, walking around. But in Afghanistan today — here’s where tradition comes in again — almost every woman and girl exercising her rights does so with the support of the man or men who let her out of the house: father, husband, brothers, uncles, sons. Exclude women from their rightful equal decision-making part in the peacemaking process and you also betray the men who stand behind them, men who are by self-definition committed to the dream of a more egalitarian and democratic future for their country.
The sad news from Afghanistan is that a great many progressives have already figured out their own exit strategy. Like generations of Afghans before them, they will become part of one of the world’s largest diasporas from a single country. Ironically, I’ll bet many of those progressive Afghan men will bring their families to the United States, where women appear to be free and it’s comforting to imagine that misogyny is dead.
Ann Jones is the author most recently of War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan 2010) on the way war affects women from Africa to the Middle East and Asia. She wrote about the struggles of Afghan women in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan 2006). She is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Jones discusses why wars never end for women and girls, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
[Note on further reading: The HRRAC report on “Women and Political Leadership” can be found online in .pdf format by clicking here.]
Copyright 2011 Ann Jones
Why Peace Is the Business of Men (But Shouldn’t Be)
Afghanistan still awaits final results from the nationwide election held last month to fill the 249 seats of the lower house of parliament. Deciding which of the more than 2,500 candidates won takes time because the Electoral Complaints Commission that investigates voting irregularities, made up of five men handpicked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was swamped by more than 4,200 complaints.
Last year, when Karzai himself ran for reelection, he busied himself with backroom deals, while his supporters were caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes and having a good laugh. Every Afghan knew that the president who had been foisted on them by foreigners in 2001 was stealing the election. Yet the international community, led by the United States, proclaimed the process if not exactly “free and fair,” at least “credible” — which is to say: Hey, what’s a little fraud among friends?
With that experience so fresh in memory, the current Electoral Complaints Commission went to work with unusual efficiency, resolving most complaints with unaccustomed speed. And last week the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, an oversight body also selected by President Karzai, announced that it would throw out as invalid almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast. Until that moment Afghans, who aspire to democracy, had hoped for a more honest election than the charade that returned Karzai to power in 2009. No such luck. The partial results of this one look just as bad as the presidential vote, with roughly the same percentage of ballots invalidated.
While dumping fraudulent votes may give the appearance of rigorous oversight, the numbers raise a new mystery: where did those votes come from? In the two days following the election last month, the running total of votes cast rose from 3.6 million to 4.4 million. Now, it has suddenly jumped again to 5.6 million — of which 1.3 million ballots have been discarded, leaving a total of 4.3 million valid votes. Election-watcher Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network described the attitude of the Independent Election Commission this way: “If you want to know where the additional votes came from: they were added fraudulently, now they have been removed, and that is really all you need to know.”
Perhaps noting that the fraud factor was holding steady, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission declared that a level of fraud with more than one in five votes considered phony is “normal” in an election.
Thus do official bodies in Afghanistan’s widely advertised new democracy — the one for which our troops are fighting — smooth over all irregularities and make short work of making do, of overseeing elections as usual: not free, not fair, just good enough for Afghans.
But are they?
Without waiting for final results, what passes for “the international community” has already pronounced the elections a “success,” but an email from a parliamentary candidate, a woman I know named Mahbouba Seraj, tells a different story:
“I honestly don’t know from where to start. My frustration, disappointment, and anger are so great I am afraid they might get the better of me. I was involved in the first presidential election of Afghanistan in 2004 and the first parliamentary election in 2005, but oh how different those elections were. I won’t say they were better because they too were captured by the War Lords, Commanders, and criminals — just like this election — but the level of fraud and corruption was nothing compared to this. Those men used force and got elected by their rifles and machine guns, but this election was… unbelievable. I have no other word to use.”
Many “unbelievable” stories litter this election, but Seraj’s tale is especially instructive because, in the end, it is all too believable. In fact, it’s a pretty simple story of courageous idealism confounded by big men with money.
On the Campaign Trail
When I last saw candidate Seraj in Kabul, the Afghan capital, in July, she was about to leave for Nuristan Province to campaign. It was a brave undertaking. Nuristan lies in the northeast of the country, sandwiched between Panshir Province and Pakistan, along the southern face of the Hindu Kush, a monumental sub-range of the Himalayas. Its precipitous slopes and high valleys are so forbidding and remote that even Islam did not reach Nuristanis until the late nineteenth century, and they are to this day considered a unique people.
The Taliban move freely in Nuristan. In 2008, they almost overran a U.S. base there, killing nine American soldiers. Then-Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal responded by withdrawing American troops from all four of their major bases in the province. The U.S. military high command has given up on certain Afghan locales — in 2010, American troops notably left the deadly and unattainable Korengal Valley, not far from Nuristan — but never before to my knowledge had they given up on a whole province.
Nevertheless, Seraj, a woman of fierce energy, wanted to represent the people of the Duaba and Mondawel districts in western Nuristan, where her grandmother was born. She put it this way to me: “I believe in democracy so much. I want it so much for Afghanistan. I tell my constituents, ‘I don’t believe in buying votes as so many candidates do. Please give them to me willingly, because then you will have your representative in Parliament who will truly serve you.’”
Worried for her safety, I reminded her that, during the 2005 parliamentary campaign in her province, another female candidate, Hawa Nuristani, and several of her staff had been shot.
“Yes,” Seraj agreed, “but she survived, and she won.”
Mahbouba Seraj’s recent email about her election race was not meant for me alone. It was addressed this way: “To my beautiful and forgotten province and its lovely and amazing people.” It was an English translation of an open letter she had written to her constituents explaining why, in this important election, they had not been able to vote at all. Reading it made clear why she considered the election of 2010 even more outrageous than previous shameful Afghan escapades in electioneering and fraud.
In 2005, the men in power in Nuristan had tried to murder the candidate they opposed. Since then they have learned that the internationals — read Americans — will accept any results as long as the election process looks reasonably good. In 2010, far more sophisticated, they murdered democracy simply by killing time.
As Seraj wrote:
“First of all, Nuristan had not been made ready for an election. They didn’t have Army and police personnel to provide security as promised. Then the hard-working head of the election committee of Nuristan was fired two weeks before polling day because some powerful candidates complained about him to the Election Commission. The young man who replaced him seemed to have no idea what his job was, yet he made sure the ballot boxes didn’t get to Mondawel and Duaba districts, which very conveniently happened to be my constituencies.
“The most incredible part of the story is that this young man had the power to stop a plane that was ready to take off to deliver the ballot boxes. He refused to hand over the ballot boxes for Mondawel district to the official in charge of the district and the staff of armed men designated to carry the ballots through the mountains to all the remote polling centers in Mondawel. He created delays and made excuses for days until it was too late.”
Officials in Kabul were also well versed in the technique. When Seraj tried to contact the head of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul, she reported:
“His very polite assistant would talk to me and tell me, ‘I will ask Mr. So-and-so to call you back,’ but he never did. Finally, I had to leave Nuristan and come to Kabul to meet with him, but when I arrived for our appointment, he had left the city to take care of other problems, and somehow I had not been notified.
“That day I tried to get in touch with anyone I could think of who might be able to help — the Minister of Defense, the Head of the United Nations in Kabul, Mr. de Mistura, and other officials at UNAMA [The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] — but everyone was engaged. By then I knew the level of fraud and corruption in Nuristan was going to hit the roof, and it did. Ballots were stolen from polling stations and scattered on the mountainsides or taken to people’s houses and filled out. To the last minute, people were offering to buy and sell voting cards and votes. What could we do? My campaign manager and I filled out complaints to the Election Complaints Commissions in both Nuristan and Kabul.”
Those complaints must now be among the thousands filed by people all over the country with similar disappointed dreams of real Afghan democracy — the very complaints now being so efficiently dealt with in Kabul even as disgruntled voters take to the streets of Herat, Kunduz, Paktia, Ghor, and other cities to protest mass disqualifications that seem to fall inequitably on certain areas or ethnic groups. Yet angry voters and candidates are turned away from the Election Complaints Commission with useless, unregistered receipts. Recognizing election proceedings that look “eerily familiar,” analyst van Bijlert notes: “the processes that are aimed at cleaning up the vote and dismissing fraudulent ballots have become so murky that they themselves are now widely seen as simply the next phase of manipulation.”
Mahbouba Seraj acquired her dreams of democracy from her ancestors — and from America. She is the granddaughter of Habibullah, who was the progressive amir or king of Afghanistan from 1901 to 1919, and the great granddaughter of Abdur Rahman, the amir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901. He introduced Islam to Nuristanis, gave Afghanistan its present borders, and for the first time subdued its disparate tribes, bringing them under centralized rule. She is also the niece of Amanullah, the modernizing amir who ruled from 1919 to 1929, pioneering in the fields of education and women’s rights, winning a war against the British, and gaining the country its independence.
Seraj herself graduated from Kabul University before being thrown into prison with her family after the monarchy was overthrown in 1973. The family fled the country in 1978 before the impending Soviet invasion, and took refuge in the United States where, Seraj says, “I lived, learned, worked, and in the end buried both my parents.” Her life changed completely when she saw an Afghan video of the Taliban executing a woman, clad in a faded blue burqa, in Kabul Stadium where, as a girl, she had happily watched games of soccer and buzkashi — Afghan polo — and had once attended a concert given by Duke Ellington.
When the Taliban fell, she returned to Kabul and went to work as a volunteer. She trained young diplomats for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; she trained women parliamentary candidates in the arts of political campaigning and, after they were elected in 2005, in the arts of legislation. She also created and hosted a national public-service radio program called “Our Beloved Afghanistan,” and taught aspiring Afghan businesswomen at the American University of Afghanistan.
Then, last summer she went to Nuristan to campaign. To her supporters back in Kabul she then wrote:
“I want to help the most underserved people in the whole of Afghanistan, the Nuristanis. If only the world knew how these magnificent people live in these great valleys of Nuristan, without roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, or any of the basic necessities of life. The women of Nuristan do all the difficult physical work. They gather wood, they pick the fruit from the trees, they tend their animals and their children and their husbands, and they walk for miles, climbing steep mountains with huge loads on their backs and their kids in their arms. I want to be a voice for Nuristan. I want to put it back on the map of Afghanistan.”
In her most recent message to her constituents, she wrote:
“Now, I have no idea how the Election Complaints Commission is going to decide who has won this election. The ECC keeps saying, ‘We have criteria and will decide accordingly.’ But I wonder what criteria they will apply to candidates who have not received votes from their constituencies because some few people got paid to prevent the votes from being cast. Perhaps the government will abandon Nuristan, or perhaps it will pick its own winner and call this “A SUCCESSFUL AND JUST ELECTION SPECIALLY FOR NURISTAN PROVINCE, THE MOST BACKWARD, POOR, BEAUTIFUL, AND FORGOTTEN PROVINCE OF AFGHANISTAN.”
Such a conclusion might be good enough for many Afghans whose dreams of democracy faded even before last year’s presidential election when word first began to circulate nationwide that the fix was in for Karzai. At least it would be no more than they have come to expect from repeated exercises in counterfeit democracy staged, it seems, more for the benefit of international audiences (and voters) than for the Afghan electorate.
Here’s a question for Americans: Would such a conclusion be good enough for us? We are, after all, citizens of the democracy that installed the largely fundamentalist government of Afghanistan in the first place, labeled it “democratic,” and staged the first Afghan presidential election in 2004 with unseemly haste as George W. Bush eyed his own run for reelection. Assuming command in Afghanistan in 2010, General David Petraeus was careful to set American expectations low: “We’re not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in five years or less,” he said. “What’s good enough, traditional organizing structures and so forth are certainly fine.”
International apologists for “good enough” who foot the bill and stage Afghan elections no longer even pretend to aim for standards like those of Switzerland — standards that nonetheless enter the democratic dreams of a great many Afghans. They assume instead that Afghans naturally cheat. As it happens, Mahbouba Seraj does not. And while it may be unreasonable to expect perfection, the fact that Afghan elections grow ever more crooked as the years pass, and Afghan voters increasingly disillusioned, suggests that Afghans are learning to play (if they care to play at all) by what they take to be American rules.
Put yourself in the place of an Afghan for a moment. When you see photographs of President Karzai’s men stuffing ballot boxes, and an American president not only telephones to congratulate him on his victory, while admitting that the election was “a little messy,” but also sends more troops to shore up his government, what are you to make of it? What else could you make of it but that Americans are complicit in the whole corrupt and costly enterprise? If you were a Nuristani, eager to cast a vote for a splendid woman candidate, and the ballots never came, what in the world would you make of that?
If you were Mahbouba Seraj, believing fervently in democracy, such things might break your heart. If you are an American voter uneasy about the course of our democracy, well, maybe you ought to give some thought to this other Afghan democracy: the one we’ve set up, paid for, and sent our soldiers to fight for as an example to the world — a small but increasingly transparent replica of our own.
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and the just published War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan 2010). Having returned temporarily from conflict zones, she is undergoing culture shock as a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Copyright 2010 Ann Jones
Big Men, Big Money, Big Voting Scam
In the eight years I’ve reported on Afghanistan, I’ve “embedded” regularly with Afghan civilians, especially women. Recently, however, with American troops “surging” and journalists getting into the swing of the military’s counterinsurgency “strategy” (better known by its acronym, COIN), I decided to get with the program as well. Last June, I filed a request to embed with the U.S. Army.
Polite emails from Army public affairs specialists ask journalists to provide evidence of medical insurance, a requirement I took as an admission that war is not a healthy pursuit. I already knew that, of course — from the civilian side. Plus I’d read a lot of articles and books by male colleagues who had risked their necks with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. What struck me about their work was this: even when they described screw-ups coming down from the top brass, those reporters still managed to make the soldierly enterprise sound pretty consistently heroic. I wondered what they might be leaving out.
So I sent in a scan of my Medicare card. I worried that this evidence of my senior citizenship, coupled with my membership in the “weaker sex,” the one we’re supposedly rescuing in Afghanistan, would raise questions about my fitness for missions “outside the wire” of a Forward Operating Base (FOB, pronounced “fob”) in eastern Afghanistan only a few miles from the tribal areas of Pakistan. But no, I got my requested embed — proof of neither fitness nor heroism required (something my male colleagues had never revealed). In the end, my age and gender were no handicap. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple knows, people will say almost anything to an old lady they assume to be stupid.
Boys and Their Toys
Having been critical of American policies from the get-go, I saw nothing on the various Army bases I visited to change my mind. One day at that FOB, preparing to go on a mission, the sergeant in charge wrote the soldiers’ names on the board, followed by “Terp” to designate the Afghan-American interpreter who would accompany us, and “In Bed,” which meant me. He made a joke about reporters who are more gung-ho than soldiers. Not me. And I wasn’t alone. I had already met a lot of older guys on other bases, mostly reservists who had jobs at home they felt passionately about — teachers, coaches, musicians — and wives and children they loved, who just wanted to go home. One said to me, “Maybe if I were ten years younger I could get into it, but I’m not a boy anymore.”
The Army had sent me a list of ground rules for reporters — mostly commonsense stuff like don’t print troop strength or battle plans. I also got a checklist of things to bring along. It was the sort of list moms get when sending their kids off to camp: water bottle, flashlight, towel, soap, toilet paper (for those excursions away from base), sleeping bag, etc. But there was other stuff too: ballistic eyewear, fireproof gloves, big knife, body armor, and Kevlar helmet. Considering how much of my tax dollar goes to the Pentagon, I thought the Army might have a few spare flak jackets to lend to visiting reporters, but no, you have to bring your own.
That was perhaps a sign of things to come, as I was soon swamped by complaints from soldiers and civilian contractors alike: not enough armor, not enough vehicles, not enough helicopters, not enough weapons, not enough troops — and even when there seemed to be plenty of everything, complaints that nothing was of quite the right kind. This struck me as a peculiarly privileged American problem that seemed to underlie almost everything I was to see on the eastern front of this war. Those complaints, in fact, seemed to spring from the very nature of the American military enterprise — from its toxic mix of paranoia, entitlement, and good intentions.
Take the paranoia, which I suppose comes with the territory. You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t think that there were enemies all around. I turned down a military flight for the short hop from the Afghan capital Kabul to Bagram, the main American base — a rapidly expanding “city” of more than 30,000 people. Instead, I asked an Afghan friend to drive me out in his car.
A Public Affairs officer warned me that driving was “very dangerous,” but the only problem we met was a U.S. military convoy headed in the opposite direction, holding up traffic. For more than an hour we sat by the highway with dozens of Afghan motorists watching a parade of enormous flatbed trucks hauling other big vehicles: bulldozers and armored personnel carriers of various vintages from Humvees to MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles). My friend said, “We don’t understand. They have all these big machines. They put them on trucks and haul them up and down the road. Why?”
I couldn’t get an answer, but I got a clue when I took an Army chopper from Bagram to a smaller base and met a private contractor partly responsible for Army vehicle maintenance. He gave me a CD to pass on to his foreman at the FOB I was headed for. Rather than music, it held an instruction manual for repairing the latest model M-ATV, a hulking personnel carrier with a V-shaped hull designed to repel the blast of roadside bombs. These are currently replacing the older MRAPs and deadly low-slung Humvees. The Humvees are, in turn, being passed off to the Afghan National Army, whose soldiers are more expendable than ours. (You see what I mean about entitlement.) Standing in a lot full of new M-ATVs already in need of fixing, the foreman seemed pleased indeed to get that CD.
It’s a measure of our sense of entitlement, I think, that while the Taliban and their allies still walk to war wearing traditional baggy cotton pants and shirts, we Americans incessantly invent things to make ourselves more “secure.” Since no one can ever be secure, least of all in war, every new development is bound to prove insufficient and almost guaranteed to create new problems.
Still, Americans feel entitled to safety. Hence the MRAP was designed to address a double whammy of fear: roadside bombs (IEDs) and ambushes. I was trained to be a passenger in an MRAP for a mission that never materialized, but in the process I learned where the built-in handholds are for those frequent occasions when the top-heavy MRAP rolls down a mountainside.
The trainer talked so assuredly about what to do in case of a rollover that he almost gave me the impression you could swivel your hips and right the vehicle, like a kayak. But no, once it rolls, it’s a goner. You have to crawl out and walk. (So much for ambush protection.) Then, one of those big trucks we saw on the highway to Bagram has to come out and haul it back to base, where the foreman with that new instruction-manual CD may have a go at fixing it. That, in a nutshell, is why the 7-passenger MRAP is being replaced by the 5-passenger M-ATV, a huge armored all-terrain vehicle not quite so inclined to tip over. Because it holds fewer soldiers, however, you have to put more of those vehicles on the road, and I’m sure you already see where that leads.
One benefit of our addiction to expensive, state-of-the-art stuff, however faulty it may prove, is that the private manufacture of armaments now helps keep our economy on life support and makes some military-industrial types rich. One drawback is that — though it’s a hard point for American soldiers in the line of fire to grasp — it actually undercuts our heralded COIN strategy. Afghans out there fighting in their cotton pajamas take Western reliance on heavy armor as a measure of our fear — not to mention the inferiority of our gods on whose protection we appear unwilling to rely. (By contrast, the watchman at the small Afghan National Army base adjacent to the FOB I was visiting slept on a cot on the roof, exposed to enemy fire with his tea kettle beside him, either trusting his god, or maybe knowing something we don’t about the “enemy.”)
All the Comforts of War
On the great scale of American bases, think of Bagram as a city, secondary bases as small towns, FOBS as heavily gated communities in rural landscapes, and outlying COPs (Combat Outposts) as camps you wouldn’t want your kid to go to. A FOB is, by definition, pretty far out there on the fringe, but I have to say straight out that when the chopper dropped me off in full (and remarkably heavy) body armor and Kevlar helmet at my designated FOB, it didn’t look at all like “the front” to me.
I should explain that my enduring image of war comes from the trenches of World War I, from which my father returned with a lot of medals, lifelong disabilities, and horrific picture books I wasn’t allowed to see as a child. In that war, men lived for months on end without a change of uniform, in muddy or frozen trenches, infested with rats and lice, often amid their own excrement and their own dead.
The frontline FOB where I landed and its soldiers, by contrast, are spic-and-span. Credit for this goes largely to the remarkably inexpensive labor of crews of Filipinos, Indians, Croatians, and others lured from distant lands by American for-profit private contractors responsible for making our troops feel at home away from home. The base’s streets are laid out on a grid. Tents in tidy rows are banked with standard sand bags and their super-sized cousins, towering Hescos filled with rocks and rubble.
The tents are cooled by roaring tornados of air conditioning, thanks to equipment fueled by gasoline that costs the Army about $400 per gallon to import. It takes fuelers three to four hours every day to refill all the giant generators that keep the cold air coming, so I felt guilty when, to prevent shivering in my sleep, I stuffed my towel into the ducts suspended from the ceiling of my tent.
More permanent buildings are going up and some, already built by Afghans and deemed not good enough for American habitation, are scheduled for reconstruction. Even in distant FOBs like this one, the building boom is prodigious. There’s a big gym with the latest body-building equipment, and a morale-boosting center equipped with telephones and banks of computers connected to the Internet that are almost always in use. A 24/7 chow hall serves barbequed ribs, steak, and lobster tails, though everything is cooked beyond recognition by those underpaid laborers to whom this cuisine is utterly foreign.
There’s a remarkably speedy laundry and, as for the toilets and showers — I can speak only for those few designated “Female” — they were the best I’d seen anywhere in Afghanistan. A sign politely suggested limiting your shower to five minutes, a nod to the expense of paying for-profit contractors to hire truckers to haul in the necessary water, and then haul out to undisclosed locations the copious effluence of American latrines. (At Bagram, that effluence goes into a conveniently nearby river, a water source for countless Afghans.) The other detritus from this expanding FOB is dumped into a pit and burned, including a staggering, but undisclosed, number of plastic water bottles. All this helps explain the annual cost of maintaining a single American soldier in Afghanistan, currently estimated at one million dollars.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a case for filthy trenches. But why should war be gussied up like home? If war were undisguisedly as nasty and brutish as it truly is, it might also tend to be short. Soldiers freed from illusions might mutiny, as many did in Vietnam, or desert and go home. But this modern, cushier kind of pseudo-war is different.
Many young soldiers told me that they actually live better in the Army, even when deployed, than they did in civilian life, where they couldn’t make ends meet, especially when they were trying to pay for college or raise a family by working one or two low-wage jobs. They won’t mutiny. They’re doing better than many of their friends back home. (And they’re dutiful, which makes for acts of personal heroism, even in a foolhardy cause.) They are likely to reenlist, though many told me they’d prefer to quit the Army and go to work for much higher pay with the for-profit private contractors that now “service” American war.
But the odd thing is that no one seems to question the relative cushiness of this life at war (nor the inequity of the hardscrabble civilian life left behind) — least of all those best able to observe firsthand the contrast between our garrisons and the humble equipment and living conditions of Afghans, both friend and foe. Rather, the contrast seems to inspire many soldiers with renewed appreciation of “our American way of life” and a determination to “do good things” for the Afghan people, just as many feel they did for the people of Iraq.
I emphasize all this because nothing I’d read about soldiering prepared me for the extent of these comforts — or the tedium that attends them. Plenty of soldiers don’t leave the base. They hold down desk jobs, issue supplies, manage logistics, repair vehicles or radios, refuel generators and trucks, plan “development” projects, handle public affairs, or update tactical maps inscribed (at certain locations I am obliged not to name) with admonitions like “Here Be Dragons” or “Here Do Bad Stuff.” They face the boredom of ordinary, unheroic, repetitive tasks.
The most common injury they are likely to suffer is a sprained ankle, thanks to eastern Afghanistan’s carpet of loose rocks — just the size to trip you up. On the wall in the FOB medics’ clinic is a poster with schematic drawings and instructions for strengthening ankles, an anatomical part not enhanced by any of the fitness machines at the gym. The medics dispense a lot of ibuprofen and keep a supply of crutches handy.
What’s Going On
As this is an infantry base, however, most squads regularly venture outside the wire and the characteristic, probably long-term disability the soldiers take with them is bad knees — from the great weight of the things they wear and carry. The base commander reminded me of one of the principles of COIN: security should be established by non-lethal means. So most infantry missions are “presence patrols,” described by one officer as “walking around in places where we won’t get shot at just to show the Afs [Afghans] that we’re keeping them safe.”
I went outside the wire myself on one of these presence patrols, a mission to a village, and — I’m sorry to say — it was no friendly stroll. It’s a soldier’s job to be “focused”; that is, to watch out for enemies. So you can’t be “distracted” by greeting people along the way or stopping to chat. Entering a village hall to meet elders, for instance, may sound cordial — winning hearts and minds. But sweeping in with guns at the ready shatters that friendly feeling. Speaking as someone who has visited Afghans in their homes for years, I have to say that this approach does not make a good impression. It probably wouldn’t go over well in your hometown either.
Nor does it seem to work. Since the U.S. military adopted COIN to “protect the populace,” civilian casualties have gone up 23%; 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed last year (and that’s undoubtedly an undercount). No wonder the presence of American troops leaves so many Afghans feeling not safer, but more endangered, and it even inspires some to take up arms against the occupying army. Ever more often, at least in the area where I was embedded, a non-lethal presence patrol turns into a lethal firefight.
One day, near the end of my embed, I watched a public affairs officer frame a photograph of a soldier who had been killed in a firefight and mount it on the wall by the commander’s office beside the black-framed photos of seven other soldiers. This American fighting force had been in place at the FOB for only a few weeks, having relieved another contingent, yet it had already lost eight men. (Five Afghan soldiers had been killed as well, but their pictures were notably absent from the gallery of remembrance.) The Army takes a photograph of every soldier at the beginning of his or her service, so it’s on file when needed; when, that is, a soldier is killed.
Most American bases and combat outposts are named for dead American soldiers. When a soldier is killed — or “falls,” as the Army likes to put it — the Internet service and the phones on base go dead until an Army delegation has knocked on the door of surviving family members. So even if you’re one of those soldiers who never leaves the base, you’re always reminded of what’s going on out there. And then usually toward evening, some unseen enemies on the peaks around the base begin to shoot down at it, and American gunners respond with shells that lift great clouds of rock and dust from the mountains into the darkening sky.
Doing Good to Afghans
On the base, I heard incessant talk about COIN, the “new” doctrine resurrected from the disaster of Vietnam in the irrational hope that it will work this time. From my experience at the FOB, however, it’s clear enough that the hearts-and-minds part of COIN is already dead in the water, and one widespread practice in the military that’s gone unreported by other embedded journalists helps explain why. So here’s a TomDispatch exclusive, courtesy of Afghan-American men serving as interpreters for the soldiers. They were embarrassed to the point of agony when mentioning this habit, but desperate to put a stop to it. COIN calls for the military to meet and make friends with village elders, drink tea, plan “development,” and captivate their hearts and minds. Several interpreters told me, however, that every meeting includes some young American soldiers whose locker-room-style male bonding features bouts of hilarious farting.
To Afghan men, nothing is more shameful. A fart is proof that a man cannot control any of his apparatus below the belt. The man who farts is thus not a man at all. He cannot be taken seriously, nor can any of his ideas or promises or plans.
Blissfully unaware of such things, the Army goes on planning together with its civilian consultants (representatives of the State Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and various independent contractors who make up what’s called a Human Terrain Team charged with interpreting local culture and helping to win the locals over to our side). Some speak of “building infrastructure,” others of advancing “good governance” or planning “economic development.” All talk of “doing good” and “helping” Afghanistan.
In a typical mess-up on the actual terrain of Afghanistan, Army experts previously in charge of this base had already had a million-dollar suspension bridge built over a river some distance away, but hadn’t thought to secure land rights, so no road leads to it. Now the local American agriculture specialist wants to introduce alfalfa to these waterless, rocky mountains to feed herds of cattle principally pastured in his mind.
Yet even as I was filling my notebook with details of their delusionary schemes, the base commander told me he had already been forced to “put aside development.” He had his hands full facing a Taliban onslaught he hadn’t expected. Throughout Afghanistan, insurgent attacks have gone up 51% since the official adoption of COIN as the strategy du jour. On this eastern front, where the commander had served six years earlier, he now faces a “surge” of intimidation, assassination, suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and fighters with greater technical capability than he has ever seen in Afghanistan.
A few days after we spoke, the Afghanistan command was handed to General Petraeus, the sainted refurbisher of the military’s counterinsurgency manual. I wonder if the base commander has told Petraeus yet what he told me then: “What we’re fighting here now — it’s a conventional war.”
I’d been “on the front” of this war for less than two weeks, and I already needed a vacation. Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans — men of extraordinary dignity — who have seen all this before and know the outcome.
Being on the base was tedious, often tense, and equally sorrowful at times when soldiers fell. Then the base commander, on foot, escorted the armored vehicles returning from a firefight on to the base the way a bygone cavalry officer might enter a frontier fort, leading a riderless horse. The scene would look good in a Hollywood war movie: moving in that sentimental Technicolor way that seems to imbue with heroic significance unnecessary and pointless death.
One night I bedded down outdoors under a profusion of stars and an Islamic crescent moon. Invisible in the dark, I couldn’t help overhearing a soldier who’d slipped out to make a cell phone call back home. “I really need to talk to you today,” he said, and then stumbling in his search for words, he broke down. “No,” he said at last, “I’m fine. I’ll call you back later.”
The next day, carrying my helmet and my armor on my arm, I boarded a helicopter and flew away.
Copyright 2010 Ann Jones
This article was originally posted at TomDispatch.com.
Here Be Dragons
President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy isn’t working. So said a parade of Afghanistan watchers during the flap over war commander General Stanley McChrystal’s firing. But what does that phrase, so often in the media these days, really mean? And if the strategy really isn’t working, just how can you tell?
The answers to these questions raise even more important ones, including: Why, when President Obama fires an insubordinate and failing general, does he cling to his failing war policy? And if our strategy isn’t working, what about the enemy’s? And if nothing much is working, why does it still go on nonstop this way? Let’s take these one at a time.
1. What do you mean by “it’s not working”?
“It” is counterinsurgency or COIN, which, in fact, is really less of a strategy than a set of tactics in pursuit of a strategy. Counterinsurgency doctrine, originally designed by empires intending to squat on their colonies forever, calls for elevating the principle of “protecting the population” above pursuing the bad guys at all cost. Implementing such a strategy quickly becomes a tricky, even schizophrenic, balancing act, as I recently was reminded.
I just spent some time embedded with the U.S. Army at a forward operating base near the Pakistan border where, despite daily “sig acts” — significant activity of a hostile nature — virtually every “lethal” American soldier is matched by a “nonlethal” counterpart whose job it is, in one way or another, to soften up those civilians for “protection.”
General McChrystal himself played both roles. As the U.S. commander, he was responsible for killing what he termed, at one point, “an amazing number of people” who were not threats, but he also regularly showed up at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace to say, “Sorry.” Karzai praised him publicly for his frequent apologies (each, of course, reflecting an American act or acts that killed civilians), though angry Afghans were less impressed.
The part of the lethal activity that often goes awry is supposed to be counterbalanced by the “sorry” part, which may be as simple as dispatching U.S. officers to drink humble tea with local “key leaders.” Often enough, though, it comes in the form of large, unsustainable gifts. The formula, which is basic COIN, goes something like this: kill some civilians in the hunt for the bad guys and you have to make up for it by building a road. This trade-off explains why, as you travel parts of the country, interminable (and often empty) strips of black asphalt now traverse Afghanistan’s vast expanses of sand and rock, but it doesn’t explain why Afghans, thus compensated, are angrier than ever.
Many Afghans, of course, are angry because they haven’t been compensated at all, not even with a road to nowhere. Worse yet, more often than not, they’ve been promised things that never materialize. (If you were to summarize the history of the country as a whole in these last years, it might go like this: big men — both Afghan and American — make out like the Beltway Bandits many of them are, while ordinary Afghans in the countryside still wish their kids had shoes.)
And don’t forget the majority of Afghans in the countryside who have scarcely been consulted at all: women. To protect Afghan women from foreign fighters, Afghan men lock them up — the women, that is. American military leaders slip easily into the all-male comfort zone, probably relieved perhaps to try to win the “hearts and minds” of something less than half “the population.”
It’s only in the last year or two that the Marines and the Army started pulling a few American women off their full-time non-combat jobs and sending them out as Female Engagement Teams (FETs) to meet and greet village women. As with so many innovative new plans in our counterinsurgency war, this one was cobbled together in a thoughtless way that risked lives and almost guaranteed failure.
Commanders have casually sent noncombatant American women soldiers — supply clerks and radio operators — outside the wire, usually with little training, no clear mission, and no follow up. Predictably, like their male counterparts, they have left a trail of good intentions and broken promises behind. So when I went out to meet village women near the Pakistan border last week with a brand-new Army FET-in-training, we faced the fury of Pashto women still waiting for a promised delivery of vegetable seeds.
Our visit did, however, open a window into a world military and political policymakers have ignored for all too long. It turns out that the women of Afghanistan, whom George W. Bush claimed to have liberated so many years ago, are still mostly oppressed, impoverished, malnourished, uneducated, short of seeds, and mad as hell.
Count them among a plentiful crew of angry Afghans who are living proof that “it’s not working” at all. Afghans, it seems, know the difference between genuine apologies and bribes, true commitment and false promises, generosity and self-interest. And since the whole point of COIN is to gain the hearts and minds of “the population,” those angry Afghans are a bad omen for the U.S. military and President Obama.
Moreover, it’s not working for a significant subgroup of Americans in Afghanistan either: combat soldiers. I’ve heard infantrymen place the blame for a buddy’s combat injury or death on the strict rules of engagement (“courageous restraint,” as it’s called) imposed by General McChrystal’s version of COIN strategy. Taking a page from Vietnam, they claim their hands are tied, while the enemy plays by its own rules. Rightly or wrongly, this opinion is spreading fast among grieving soldiers as casualties mount.
It’s also clear that even the lethal part of counterinsurgency isn’t working. Consider all those civilian deaths and injuries, so often the result of false information fed to Americans to entice them to settle local scores. To give just one example: American troops recently pitched hand grenades into a house in Logar Province which they’d been told was used by terrorists. Another case of false information. It held a young Afghan, a relative of an Afghan agricultural expert who happens to be an acquaintance of mine. The young man had just completed his religious education and returned to the village to become its sole maulawi, or religious teacher. The villagers, very upset, turned out to vouch for him, and the Army hospitalized him with profuse apologies. Luckily, he survived, but such routine mistakes regularly leave dead or wounded civilians and a thickening residue of rage behind.
Reports coming in from observers and colleagues in areas of the Pashtun south, once scheduled to be demonstration sites for McChrystal’s cleared, held, built, and better-governed Afghanistan, are generally grim. Before his resignation, the general himself was already referring to Marja — the farming area (initially trumpeted as a “city of 80,000 people”) where he launched his first offensive — as “a bleeding ulcer.” He also delayed the highly publicized advance into Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, supposedly to gain more time to bring around the opposing populace, which includes President Karzai. Meanwhile, humanitarian NGOs based in Kandahar complain that they can’t do their routine work assisting the city’s inhabitants while the area lies under threat of combat. Without assistance, Kandaharis grow — you guessed it — angrier.
From Kandahar province, where American soldiers mass for the well-advertised securing of Kandahar, come reports that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is stealing equipment — right down to bottled drinking water — from the U.S. military and selling it to the Taliban. U.S. commanders can’t do much about it because the official American script calls for the ANA to take over responsibility for national defense.
NATO soldiers have complained all along about the ill-trained, uninterested troops of the ANA, but the animosity between them seems to have grown deadly in some quarters. American soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security, they don’t tell their ANA colleagues when and where they’re going on patrol. Back in the 1980s, in the anti-Soviet jihad we supported, we trained Afghan jihadists who have today become our worst enemies, and now we may be doing it again.
Factor in accounts of what General McChrystal did best: taking out bad guys. Reportedly, he was vigorously directing Special Forces’ assassinations of high and mid-level Taliban leaders in preparation for “peeling off” the “good” Taliban — that is, those impoverished fighters only in it for the money. According to his thinking, they would later be won over to the government through internationally subsidized jobs. But assassinating the ideological leaders, the true believers and organizers — or those we call the bad Taliban — actually leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-guns more interested in living off the population we’re supposed to protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty. From the point of view of ordinary Afghans in the countryside, our “good Taliban” are the worst of all.
I could go on. If you spend time in Afghanistan, evidence of failure is all around you, including those millions of American taxpayer dollars that are paid to Afghan security contractors (and Karzai relatives) and then handed over to insurgents to buy protection for U.S. supply convoys traveling on U.S. built, but Taliban-controlled, roads. Strategy doesn’t get much worse than that: financing both sides, and every brigand in between, in hopes of a happier ending someday.
2. So why does Obama stick to this failed policy?
Go figure. Maybe he’s been persuaded by Pentagon hype. Replacing General McChrystal with Centcom commander General David Petraeus brought a media golden-oldies replay of Petraeus’s greatest hits: his authorship of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, updated (some say plagiarized) from a Vietnam-era edition, and of Bush’s 2007 “surge” in Iraq, an exercise in sectarian cleansing now routinely called a “success.” If you can apply the word “success” to any operation in Iraq, you’re surely capable of clinging to the hope that Petreus can find it again in Afghanistan.
But like David McKiernan, the general he ousted, McChrystal has already misapplied the “lessons” of Iraq to the decidedly different circumstances of Afghanistan and so producing a striking set of failures. A deal to buy off the Shinwari Pashtuns, for instance, a tribe mistakenly thought to be the equivalent of the Anbar Sunnis in Iraq, ended in an uproar when they pocketed the money without firing a shot at a single Talib. Not so surprising, considering that the people they were paid to fight are not foreign invaders — that would be us — but their Pashtun cousins.
Moreover, the surge into the Afghan south seems only to have further alienated the folks who live there, while increasing violence against local residents. It has also come at the expense of American troops in the east, the ones I was recently embedded with, who face an onslaught of hostile fighters moving across the border from Pakistan.
3. What about the enemy strategy? How’s that working?
It seems the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and various hostile fighters in Afghanistan drew their own lessons from Petraeus’s surge in Iraq: they learned to deal with a surge not by fading away before it, but by meeting it with a surge of their own. An American commander defending the eastern front told me that hostile forces recently wiped out five border posts. “They opened the gate,” he said, but with the American high command focused on a future surge into Kandahar, who’s paying attention? In fact, as the battle heats up in the east, another official told me, they are running short of helicopters to medevac out American casualties. In this way, so-called strategy easily morphs into a shell game played largely for an American audience at the expense of American soldiers.
And all the while America’s “partner” in this strategy, the dubious President Karzai, consolidates his power, which is thoroughly grounded in the Pashtun south, the domain of his even more suspect half-brother, Ahmed Wali. In the process, he studiously ignores the parliament, which lately has been staging a silent stop-work protest, occasionally banging on the desks for emphasis. He now evidently bets his money (which used to be ours) on the failure of American forces, and extends feelers of reconciliation to Pakistan and the Taliban, the folks he now fondly calls his “angry brothers.” As for the Afghan people, even the most resilient citizens of Kabul who, like Obama, remain hopeful, say: “This is our big problem.” They’re talking, of course, about Karzai and his government that the Americans put in place, pay for, prop up, and pretend to be “partners” with.
In fact, America’s silent acceptance of President Karzai’s flagrantly fraudulent election last summer — all those stuffed ballot boxes — seems to have exploded whatever illusions many Afghans still had about an American commitment to democracy. They know now that matters will not be resolved at polling places or in jirga council tents. They probably won’t be resolved in Afghanistan at all, but in secret locations in Washington, Riyadh, Islamabad, and elsewhere. The American people, by the way, will have little more to say about the resolution of the war — though it consumes our wealth and our soldiers, too — than the Afghans.
Think of what’s happening in Afghanistan more generally as a creeping Talibanization, which Afghans say is working all too well. In Marja, in Kandahar, in the east, everywhere, the Taliban do what we can’t and roll out their own (shadow) governments-in-a-box, ready to solve disputes, administer rough justice, collect taxes, and enforce “virtue.” In Herat, the Ulema of the West issue a fatwa restricting the freedom of women to work and move about without a mahram, or male relative as escort. In Kabul, the police raid restaurants that serve alcohol, and the government shuts down reputable, secular international NGOs, charging them with proselytizing. Taliban influence creeps into parliament, into legislation restricting constitutional freedoms, into ministries and governmental contracts where corruption flourishes, and into the provisional peace jirga tent where delegates called for freedom for all imprisoned Taliban. Out of the jails, into the government, to sit side by side with warlords and war criminals, mujahideen brothers under the skin. Embraced by President Karzai. Perhaps even welcomed one day by American strategists and President Obama himself as a way out.
4. If it’s so bad, why can’t it be stopped?
The threatening gloom of American policy is never the whole story. There are young progressive men and women running for Parliament in the coming September elections. There are women organizing to keep hold of the modest gains they’ve made, though how they will do that when the men seem so intent on negotiating them away remains a mystery. There are the valiant efforts of thoroughly devout Muslims who wish to live in the twenty-first century. When they look outward to more developed Islamic countries, however, they see that their homeland is a Muslim country like no other — and if the Taliban return, it will only be worse.
American development was supposed to have made it all so much better. But tales abound of small, successful projects in education or health care, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and then dropped without a single visit from USAID monitors afraid to leave their Embassy fortress in Kabul. Regularly, USAID now hands over huge hunks of “aid” money to big, impossibly ambitious, quick-fix projects run by the usual no-bid Beltway Bandit contractors whose incompetence, wastefulness, unconscionable profits, and outright fraud should be a national scandal.
This, too, is a process everyone knows but can’t speak about because it’s not part of the official script in which the U.S. must be seen as developing backward Afghanistan, instead of sending it reeling into the darkest of ages. Despairing humanitarians recall that Hillary Clinton promised as secretary of state to clean house at USAID, which, she said, had become nothing but “a contracting shop.” Well, here’s a flash from Afghanistan: it’s still a contracting shop, and the contracts are going to the same set of contractors who have been exposed again and again as venal, fraudulent, and criminal.
Just as Obama sends more troops and a new commander to fight a fraudulent war for a purpose that makes no sense to anyone — except perhaps the so-called defense intellectuals who live in an alternative Washington-based Afghanaland of their own creation — Clinton presides over a fraudulent aid program that functions chiefly to transfer American tax dollars from the national treasury to the pockets of already rich contractors and their congressional cronies. If you still believe, as I would like to, that Obama and Clinton actually meant to make change, then you have to ask: How does this state of affairs continue, and why do the members of the international community — the U.N., all those international NGOs, and our fast-fading coalition allies — sign off on it?
You have only to look around in Kabul and elsewhere, as I did this month, to see that the more American military there is, the more insurgents there are; the more insurgent attacks, the more private security contractors; the more barriers and razor wire, the more restrictions on freedom of movement in the capital for Afghans and internationals alike; and the more security, the higher the danger pay for members of the international community who choose to stay and spend their time complaining about the way security prevents them from doing their useful work.
And so it goes round and round, this ill-oiled war machine, generating ever more incentives for almost everyone involved — except ordinary Afghans, of course — to keep on keeping on. There’s a little something for quite a few: government officials in the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for-profit contractors, defense intellectuals, generals, spies, soldiers behind the lines, international aid workers and their Afghan employees, diplomats, members of the Afghan National Army, and the police, and the Taliban, and their various pals, and the whole array of camp followers that service warfare everywhere.
It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them, moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair.
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter. Her new book, War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War, about her work with women in post-conflict countries, is to be published by Metropolitan Books in September. She is at work on her next book about what happens when America’s wars come home. To visit her website, click here.
Copyright 2010 Ann Jones
This article was originally posted at TomDispatch.com.
Counterinsurgency Down for the Count in Afghanistan…
The big Afghanistan debate in Washington is not over whether more troops are needed, but just who they should be: Americans or Afghans — Us or Them. Having just spent time in Afghanistan seeing how things stand, I wouldn’t bet on Them.
Frankly, I wouldn’t bet on Us either. In eight years, American troops have worn out their welcome. Their very presence now incites opposition, but that’s another story. It’s Them — the Afghans — I want to talk about.
Afghans are Afghans. They have their own history, their own culture, their own habitual ways of thinking and behaving, all complicated by a modern experience of decades of war, displacement, abject poverty, and incessant meddling by foreign governments near and far — of which the United States has been the most powerful and persistent. Afghans do not think or act like Americans. Yet Americans in power refuse to grasp that inconvenient point.
In the heat of this summer, I went out to the training fields near Kabul where Afghan army recruits are put through their paces, and it was quickly evident just what’s getting lost in translation. Our trainers, soldiers from the Illinois National Guard, were masterful. Professional and highly skilled, they were dedicated to carrying out their mission — and doing the job well. They were also big, strong, camouflaged, combat-booted, supersized American men, their bodies swollen by flak jackets and lashed with knives, handguns, and god only knows what else. Any American could be proud of their commitment to tough duty.
The Afghans were puny by comparison: Hundreds of little Davids to the overstuffed American Goliaths training them. Keep in mind: Afghan recruits come from a world of desperate poverty. They are almost uniformly malnourished and underweight. Many are no bigger than I am (5’4″ and thin) — and some probably not much stronger. Like me, many sag under the weight of a standard-issue flack jacket.
Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day — as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect — but the U.S. military is determined to train them for another style of war.
Still, the new recruits turn out for training in the blistering heat in this stony desert landscape wearing, beneath their heavy uniforms, the smart red, green, and black warm-up outfits intended to encourage them to engage in off-duty exercise. American trainers recognize that recruits regularly wear all their gear at once for fear somebody will steal anything left behind in the barracks, but they take this overdressing as a sign of how much Afghans love the military. My own reading, based on my observations of Afghan life during the years I’ve spent in that country, is this: It’s a sign of how little they trust one another, or the Americans who gave them the snazzy suits. I think it also indicates the obvious: that these impoverished men in a country without work have joined the Afghan National Army for what they can get out of it (and keep or sell) — and that doesn’t include democracy or glory.
In the current policy debate about the Afghan War in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin wants the Afghans to defend their country. Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the committee, agrees but says they need even more help from even more Americans. The common ground — the sacred territory President Obama gropes for — is that, whatever else happens, the U.S. must speed up the training of “the Afghan security forces.”
American military planners and policymakers already proceed as if, with sufficient training, Afghans can be transformed into scale-model, wind-up American Marines. That is not going to happen. Not now. Not ever. No matter how many of our leaders concur that it must happen — and ever faster.
“Basic Warrior Training”
So who are these security forces? They include the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). International forces and private contractors have been training Afghan recruits for both of them since 2001. In fact, the determination of Western military planners to create a national army and police force has been so great that some seem to have suppressed for years the reports of Canadian soldiers who witnessed members of the Afghan security forces engaging in a fairly common pastime, sodomizing young boys.
Current training and mentoring is provided by the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, Romania, Poland, Mongolia, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as by the private for-profit contractors MPRI, KBR (formerly a division of Halliburton), Pulau, Paravant, and RONCO.
Almost eight years and counting since the “mentoring” process began, officers at the Kabul Military Training Center report that the army now numbers between 88,000 and 92,000 soldiers, depending on who you talk to; and the basic training course financed and led by Americans, called “Basic Warrior Training,” is turning out 28,800 new soldiers every year, according to a Kabul Military Training Center “fact sheet.” The current projected “end strength” for the ANA, to be reached in December 2011, is 134,000 men; but Afghan officers told me they’re planning for a force of 200,000, while the Western press often cites 240,000 as the final figure.
The number 400,000 is often mentioned as the supposed end-strength quota for the combined security forces — an army of 240,000 soldiers and a police force with 160,000 men. Yet Afghan National Police officials also speak of a far more inflated figure, 250,000, and they claim that 149,000 men have already been trained. Police training has always proven problematic, however, in part because, from the start, the European allies fundamentally disagreed with the Bush administration about what the role of the Afghan police should be. Germany initiated the training of what it saw as an unarmed force that would direct traffic, deter crime, and keep civic order for the benefit of the civilian population. The U.S. took over in 2003, handed the task off to a private for-profit military contractor, DynCorp, and proceeded to produce a heavily armed, undisciplined, and thoroughly venal paramilitary force despised by Kabulis and feared by Afghan civilians in the countryside.
Contradicting that widespread public view, an Afghan commanding officer of the ANP assured me that today the police are trained as police, not as a paramilitary auxiliary of the ANA. “But policing is different in Afghanistan,” he said, because the police operate in active war zones.
Washington sends mixed messages on this subject. It farms out responsibility for the ANP to a private contractor that hires as mentors retired American law enforcement officers — a Kentucky state trooper, a Texas county lawman, a North Carolina cop, and so on. Yet Washington policymakers continue to couple the police with the army as “the Afghan security forces” — the most basic police rank is “soldier” — in a merger that must influence what DynCorp puts in its training syllabus. At the Afghan National Police training camp outside Kabul, I watched a squad of trainees learn (reluctantly) how to respond to a full-scale ambush. Though they were armed only with red rubber Kalashnikovs, the exercise looked to me much like the military maneuvers I’d witnessed at the army training camp.
Like army training, police training, too, was accelerated months ago to insure “security” during the run-up to the presidential election. With that goal in mind, DynCorp mentors shrunk the basic police training course from eight weeks to three, after which the police were dispatched to villages all across the country, including areas controlled by the Taliban. After the election, the surviving short-course police “soldiers” were to be brought back to Kabul for the rest of the basic training program. There’s no word yet on how many returned.
You have to wonder about the wisdom of rushing out this half-baked product. How would you feel if the police in your community were turned loose, heavily armed, after three weeks of training? And how would you feel if you were given a three-week training course with a rubber gun and then dispatched, with a real one, to defend your country?
Training security forces is not cheap. So far, the estimated cost of training and mentoring the police since 2001 is at least $10 billion. Any reliable figure on the cost of training and mentoring the Afghan army since 2001 is as invisible as the army itself. But the U.S. currently spends some $4 billion a month on military operations in Afghanistan.
The Invisible Men
What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn’t the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to “operate independently,” but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?
My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of “Basic Warrior Training” 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.
In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it’s a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin — the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets — and many are undoubtedly Taliban.
American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn’t come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It’s not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it’s himself as well.
Earlier this year, the U.S. training program became slightly more compelling with the introduction of a U.S.-made weapon, the M-16 rifle, which was phased in over four months as a replacement for the venerable Kalashnikov. Even U.S. trainers admit that, in Afghanistan, the Kalashnikov is actually the superior weapon. Light and accurate, it requires no cleaning even in the dust of the high desert, and every man and boy already knows it well. The strange and sensitive M-16, on the other hand, may be more accurate at slightly greater distances, but only if a soldier can keep it clean, while managing to adjust and readjust its notoriously sensitive sights. The struggling soldiers of the ANA may not ace that test, but now that the U.S. military has generously passed on its old M-16s to Afghans, it can buy new ones at taxpayer expense, a prospect certain to gladden the heart of any arms manufacturer. (Incidentally, thanks must go to the Illinois National Guard for risking their lives to make possible such handsome corporate profits.)
As for the police, U.S.-funded training offers a similar revolving door. In Afghanistan, however, it is far more dangerous to be a policeman than a soldier. While soldiers on patrol can slip away, policemen stuck at their posts are killed almost every day. Assigned in small numbers to staff small-town police stations or highway checkpoints, they are sitting ducks for Taliban fighters. As representatives of the now thoroughly discredited government of President Hamid Karzai, the hapless police make handy symbolic targets. British commanders in Helmand province estimated that 60% of Afghan police are on drugs — and little wonder why.
In the Pashtun provinces of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strong, recruiting men for the Afghan National Police is a “problem,” as an ANP commander told me. Consequently, non-Pashtun police trainees of Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, or other ethnic backgrounds are dispatched to maintain order in Pashtun territory. They might as well paint targets on their foreheads. The police who accompanied the U.S. Marines into Helmand Province reportedly refused to leave their heavily armed mentors to take up suicidal posts in provincial villages. Some police and army soldiers, when asked by reporters, claimed to be “visiting” Helmand province only for “vacation.”
In many districts, the police recently supplemented their low pay and demonstrated allegiance to local warlords by stuffing ballot boxes for President Karzai in the presidential election. Consider that but one more indication — like the defection of those great Islamist fundamentalist mujahidin allies the U.S. sponsored in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s who are now fighting with the Taliban — that no amount of American training, mentoring, or cash will determine who or what Afghans will fight for, if indeed they fight at all.
Afghans are world famous fighters, in part because they have a knack for gravitating to the winning side, and they’re ready to change sides with alacrity until they get it right. Recognizing that Afghans back a winner, U.S. military strategists are now banking on a counterinsurgency strategy that seeks to “clear, hold, and build” — that is, to stick around long enough to win the Afghans over. But it’s way too late for that to work. These days, U.S. troops sticking around look ever more like a foreign occupying army and, to the Taliban, like targets.
Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post that the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques — “as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army’s Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments.” Of course, some of them have attended training sessions which teach them to fight in “austere environments,” probably time and time again. If you were a Talib, wouldn’t you scout the training being offered to Afghans on the other side? And wouldn’t you do it more than once if you could get well paid every time?
Such training is bound to come in handy — as it may have for the Talib policeman who, just last week, bumped off eight other comrades at his police post in Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan and turned it over to the Taliban. On the other hand, such training can be deadly to American trainers. Take the case of the American trainer who was shot and wounded that same week by one of his trainees. Reportedly, a dispute arose because the trainer was drinking water “in front of locals,” while the trainees were fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramazan.
There is, by the way, plenty of evidence that Taliban fighters get along just fine, fighting fiercely and well without the training lavished on the ANA and the ANP. Why is it that Afghan Taliban fighters seem so bold and effective, while the Afghan National Police are so dismally corrupt and the Afghan National Army a washout?
When I visited bases and training grounds in July, I heard some American trainers describe their Afghan trainees in the same racist terms once applied to African slaves in the U.S.: lazy, irresponsible, stupid, childish, and so on. That’s how Afghan resistance, avoidance, and sabotage look to American eyes. The Taliban fight for something they believe — that their country should be freed from foreign occupation. “Our” Afghans try to get by.
Yet one amazing thing happens to ANA trainees who stick it out for the whole 10 weeks of basic training. Their slight bodies begin to fill out a little. They gain more energy and better spirits — all because for the first time in their lives they have enough nutritious food to eat.
Better nutrition notwithstanding — Senator Levin, Senator McCain — “our” Afghans are never going to fight for an American cause, with or without American troops, the way we imagine they should. They’re never going to fight with the energy of the Taliban for a national government that we installed against Afghan wishes, then more recently set up to steal another election, and now seem about to ratify in office, despite incontrovertible evidence of flagrant fraud. Why should they? Even if the U.S. could win their minds, their hearts are not in it.
One small warning: Don’t take the insecurity of the Afghan security forces as an argument for sending yet more American troops to Afghanistan. Aggressive Americans (now numbering 68,000) are likely to be even less successful than reluctant Afghan forces. Afghans want peace, but the kharaji (foreign) troops (100,000, if you include U.S. allies in NATO) bring death and destruction wherever they go. Think instead about what you might have won — and could still win — had you spent all those military billions on food. Or maybe agriculture. Or health care. Or a civilian job corps. Is it too late for that now?
Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan, 2006) and writes often about Afghanistan for TomDispatch and the Nation. War Is Not Over When It’s Over, her new book about the impact of war on women, will be published next year.
Copyright 2009 Ann Jones
Meet the Afghan Army
Kabul, July 2009 — I’ve come back to the Afghan capital again, after an absence of two years, to find it ruined in a new way. Not by bombs this time, but by security.
The heart of the city is now hidden behind piles of Hescos — giant, grey sandbags produced somewhere in Great Britain. They’re stacked against the walls of government buildings, U.N. agencies, embassies, NGO offices, and army camps (of which there are a lot) — and they only seem to grow and multiply. A friend called just the other day from a U.N. building, distressed that the view from her office window was vanishing behind yet another row of Hescos. Urban life as Kabulis knew it in this once graceful city has been lost to the security needs of strangers.
The creation of Hescostan in the middle of Kabul is both an effect of, and a cause of, war: an effect because it seems to arise in response to devious enemy tactics that are still relatively new to Afghanistan, such as the use of roadside bombs (IEDs) and suicide bombers (though there has actually been no attack in Kabul for six months now); a cause because it is so clearly a projection, an externalization of the fears of men out of their depth. It is a paradox of such “force protection” that the more you have, the more you feel you need. What’s called security generates fear. Now comes a documentary that projects that fear onto the screen.
It is 2006, late in the year. A reporter stands on a rocky hillside near the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and points a wobbly camera at dark-clad gunmen ranged at a distance before him. They’ve wrapped the tails of their turbans to mask their faces. They carry their Kalashnikovs at the ready. The reporter shouts a question: “Does the Taliban receive support from Pakistan?”
As the camera jumps about to find the Talib who is speaking, a translator voices his answer: “Yes, Pakistan stands with us. On the other side of the border, we have our offices there. Some people in Pakistan is supporting us and the government of Pakistan does not say anything to us. They provide us with everything.”
The reporter — Christian Parenti of the Nation magazine — has his story. For years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has charged Pakistan with backing the Taliban, while Pakistan’s then-President Musharraf denied it, and officials of the Bush administration looked the other way. Now, Parenti has the word of armed Taliban. This is the kind of story a foreign correspondent can’t get without a fixer; that is, a local guy who knows the language, the local politics, the protocols of custom — and how to arrange a meeting like this in the middle of nowhere with men who might kill you.
A Talib warns of an approaching reconnaissance plane. “We should go,” the scared reporter says. The camera spins wildly across a vast empty expanse of rock and pale sky. “We should go.” Moments later, safely back in a car speeding away, Parenti turns the camera on his own grinning face: “This is the most relieved American reporter in Afghanistan,” he says, and describes the man sitting beside him — Ajmal Nashqbandi, a 24-year-old Pashtun from Kabul — as “the best fixer in Afghanistan.” But we already know what Parenti doesn’t (because filmmaker Ian Olds has told us up front before the titles even hit the screen): soon the fixer will be dead, murdered by the Taliban. We will be witnesses.
If this sounds harrowing, it is. Fixer is the best documentary I’ve seen on Afghanistan — so good it’s hard to imagine a better one. It’s all jagged edges, blurs, and disconnects, catching as it does both the forbidding emptiness of the land and the edginess of war-weary Afghans. One long segment, apparently showing the inside of Parenti’s shawl as he conceals a camera from potentially hostile villagers, seems the visual correlative of the feeling that unsettles all outsiders from time to time in this country: the sense of being completely in the dark. In 2006-2007, as the Taliban surged back with kidnappings, murders, bombs, and jihadi suicide attacks, this is how Afghanistan felt. It’s the feeling that still drives Hesco sales in the capital.
Full disclosure: both Parenti and I have written about Afghanistan for the Nation for several years. I write mostly about women, Parenti mostly about the war, and I admire his work. We met for the first time only a couple of months ago, after both of us were invited to take part in a conference on Afghanistan. He told me about Fixer, then playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. I went to see it, and when it ended I could hardly get out of my seat. Watching it again on DVD in Kabul made me weep.
By refusing to exploit Ajmal’s murder for the sake of suspense — by revealing it at the start — Olds has chosen to make a film full of the kind of fear that seems to inhabit international centers of power in Afghanistan today. The film’s nervous visual style is strikingly different from the clean-cut look of Occupation: Dreamland, his earlier documentary about American soldiers in Iraq. Critics will surely have much more to say about Fixer’s importance as a film. It has already won a raft of prizes, including firsts at Documenta Madrid and the Pesaro (Italy) Film Festival, and Olds took home a Tribeca award this year as the best new documentary filmmaker.
How Lies Begat Illusions Begat Lies
What I want to focus on, though, is the way the film resonates with conditions in Afghanistan today. Olds has the good sense to insert a quick history lesson in this film, on the grounds that you can’t understand the Taliban without knowing about America’s covert operations in the region in the 1980s. Back then, President Ronald Reagan’s administration, mainly through the CIA, used the Pakistani Intelligence services to fund, arm, and train Afghan and foreign Islamist jihadis to defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Pakistan subsequently used “channels built with U.S. money” to install in Afghanistan a friendly government — the Taliban.
Later, after the George W. Bush administration invaded the country and the U.S. ousted the Taliban, it installed Hamid Karzai as president and returned many of the old Islamist jihadis to power in his government. Thus, this peculiar, well-established fact underlies the current war in Afghanistan: the United States sponsored both sides.
Some analysts say the U.S. “invented” all the “enemies” involved; others, that the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia) merely paid the bills, while Pakistan directed the action to its own advantage. Either way, this history — much of it still secret or repeatedly re-spun — leaves all parties to the current conflict in an intellectual sweat. They must plan for the future on the basis of a past they can’t acknowledge. With national elections set for August 20th, the United States is planning for an Afghan future that still includes the jihadi buddies its officials know they should long ago have left behind.
Only the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has called, year after year, for a moral accounting. Its surveys of Afghan citizens consistently find that the people want lasting peace, and to attain it, they would prefer some sort of truth and reconciliation procedure, like the one that took place in South Africa, to cleanse the country and set it on an honest intellectual and moral footing.
For obvious reasons, the United States wants no part of the truth that would emerge from such a process. Just this week, the Obama administration first claimed it had no grounds to investigate General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s infamous 2001 massacre of Taliban prisoners, even though Dostum seems to have been on the CIA payroll at the time, and his troops were backed by U.S. military operatives. Later, the president reversed course, ordering national security officials to “look into” the matter. In the end, President Obama may prefer to “move on.” As does Dostum, who recently rejoined the Karzai administration.
I’ve elaborated here on Olds’s quick history lesson to more fully explain why you may be finding it hard these days to understand how we got into what’s already being called “Obama’s War” — and how to get out. Think of it this way: everything that happens in Afghanistan is based on (1) a lie, (2) an illusion, or (3) both. Then throw in mass illusion as well, carefully constructed so that each person tells others only what they want to hear.
Which brings us back to Fixer, a film steeped in stories of duplicity and self-delusion that are the personal and political currency of Afghanistan today. In one telling incident, Parenti pushes to observe the famously corrupt Afghan judiciary in action. He’s rewarded with a front row seat at a murder trial, only to learn that it has been staged for his edification.
In fact, a court official admits, the production Parenti witnessed didn’t depict the way the court really works, but the way “it should work” according to international standards. The judiciary knows those international standards very well, since NGOs and private contractors supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other aid agencies have offered them training, and what’s called “capacity building,” for years. The trainers report success, which of course is what the aid agencies want to hear; and the trainees may be encouraged (as in this case) to perform for the public. If Parenti had played the part assigned to him in this exercise in mass illusion, he’d have reported a glowing story about the success of Afghanistan’s new rule of law. (He didn’t.)
Afghans have an expression — “pesh pa been” — referring to people who move relentlessly ahead by watching their own feet. Parenti, at least, could see when he was being tripped up. But the incident leaves you wondering: if officials of the Karzai government go this far for a single American reporter, what extravagant performances have they mounted all along for junketing Senators and cabinet members, and the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Laura Bush, not to mention the recent rounds of Obama era visitors?
Even Ajmal the fixer repeatedly misjudges situations and his own people; and in the end, he proves to have been more of an innocent than Parenti. In an eerie moment captured on screen, Parenti predicts that one day the Taliban will kidnap a Western journalist. No way, says Ajmal, assuming that he and his clients are protected by Pashtunwali, his (and the Taliban’s) tribal code of honor. Later, working for the Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Ajmal fixes a fatal appointment with Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah. Taken hostage, Ajmal reassures his family in a Taliban video: “These are Muslims. We are in the hands of Islam.”
Behind the Hescos Where History Is Being Re-Spun
Illusion and duplicity entrap the fixer, too, and spin his personal story into a political event. The Italians, who notoriously negotiate with hostage takers, persuade Karzai to exchange five Taliban prisoners for Mastrogiacomo and Ajmal. In the excitement of being freed, however, Mastrogiacomo fails to keep track of his fixer. The Taliban see an opportunity to recapture Ajmal and demand the release of two more prisoners. Karzai and his foreign minister, having freed the foreigner, then scramble to the moral high ground, refusing to negotiate with terrorists. Orders come down from Pakistan to kill Ajmal — on April 8, 2007 — to make Karzai look bad in the eyes of his own people. Mullah Dadullah sends a video of the beheading.
Ajmal’s stricken father asks, “What kind of government doesn’t protect its own citizens?” The answer is: a government that’s bought, paid for, and answerable to outsiders, a government that has neither the need nor the inclination to care for its citizens. As Karzai explains the matter, “The Italians built us a road.”
That’s the government the international community is now spending more than $500 million to reelect. (Most of that money comes from the U.S.) International election officials, of course, are neutral — so neutral that they look the other way as Karzai makes deals with rival warlords to ensure his reelection. One by one they come over to his side, and word leaks out about which ministries they’ve been promised.
International agencies responsible for mounting the election have already abandoned the goal of a “free and fair” vote. They’re aiming for “credible,” which is to say, an election that looks pretty good, even if it’s not. In the context of accumulated illusions, this goal is called “realistic,” and perhaps it is. As the fixer’s grieving father says, “Our government is a puppet of foreigners. That is why we expect nothing from it.”
As I write, 4,000 newly arrived U.S. Marines are trudging through the blistering heat of Helmand Province to push back the Taliban so local Pashtuns can turn out to vote next month for Karzai, their fellow Pashtun. What’s wrong with this new Obama strategy? For one thing, in some areas the local Pashtun population has instead turned out to fight against the foreign invaders, side by side with the Taliban (who, it should be remembered, are mostly local Pashtuns). They’re as fed up as anybody with the puppet Karzai. Like millions of other Afghans, they say Karzai has done nothing for the people. But saddled with history, Karzai remains the horse the U.S. rode in on.
Let me make it clear that Olds and Parenti don’t draw these comparisons to current affairs in Afghanistan. Fixer is simply and appropriately subtitled The Taking of Ajmal Nashqbandi. It’s a tribute to a trusted colleague. But watch the film yourself and you’ll be immersed in duplicity: officials manipulate the truth, citizens fear to tell it, Americans can’t bear to look it in the face. Watch the film and maybe you’ll understand how hard it has become, here behind the Hescos where history is being re-spun, to size anything up, pin anything down, recognize an enemy, or help a friend.
[Note: Fixer will first be shown on HBO on Monday night, August 17th. It will be re-aired on August 20th, 23rd, 25th, 29th, and 31st. Check your local listings for the exact times.]
Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, 2006). She is in Kabul this summer, working with women’s organizations, as she has done intermittently since 2002.
Copyright 2009 Ann Jones
Everything That Happens in Afghanistan Is Based on Lies or Illusions
The Untold Story of Why the U.S. Is Bound to Fail in Afghanistan
By Ann Jones
The first of 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops are scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan next month to re-win the war George W. Bush neglected to finish in his eagerness to start another one. However, "winning" the military campaign against the Taliban is the lesser half of the story.
Going into Afghanistan, the Bush administration called for a political campaign to reconstruct the country and thereby establish the authority of a stable, democratic Afghan central government. It was understood that the two campaigns — military and political/economic — had to go forward together; the success of each depended on the other. But the vision of a reconstructed, peaceful, stable, democratically governed Afghanistan faded fast. Most Afghans now believe that it was nothing but a cover story for the Bush administration's real goal — to set up permanent bases in Afghanistan and occupy the country forever.
Whatever the truth of the matter, in the long run, it's not soldiers but services that count — electricity, water, food, health care, justice, and jobs. Had the U.S. delivered the promised services on time, while employing Afghans to rebuild their own country according to their own priorities and under the supervision of their own government — a mini-Marshall Plan — they would now be in charge of their own defense. The forces on the other side, which we loosely call the Taliban, would also have lost much of their grounds for complaint.
Instead, the Bush administration perpetrated a scam. It used the system it set up to dispense reconstruction aid to both the countries it "liberated," Afghanistan and Iraq, to transfer American taxpayer dollars from the national treasury directly into the pockets of private war profiteers. Think of Halliburton, Bechtel, and Blackwater in Iraq; Louis Berger Group, Bearing Point, and DynCorp International in Afghanistan. They're all in it together. So far, the Bush administration has bamboozled Americans about its shady aid program. Nobody talks about it. Yet the aid scam, which would be a scandal if it weren't so profitable for so many, explains far more than does troop strength about why, today, we are on the verge of watching the whole Afghan enterprise go belly up.
What's worse, there's no reason to expect that things will change significantly on Barack Obama's watch. During the election campaign, he called repeatedly for more troops for "the right war" in Afghanistan (while pledging to draw-down U.S. forces in Iraq), but he has yet to say a significant word about the reconstruction mission. While many aid workers in that country remain full of good intentions, the delivery systems for and uses of U.S. aid have been so thoroughly corrupted that we can only expect more of the same — unless Obama cleans house fast. But given the monumental problems on his plate, how likely is that?
The Jolly Privateers
It's hard to overstate the magnitude of the failure of American reconstruction in Afghanistan. While the U.S. has occupied the country — for seven years and counting — and efficiently set up a network of bases and prisons, it has yet to restore to Kabul, the capital, a mud brick city slightly more populous than Houston, a single one of the public services its citizens used to enjoy. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, they modernized the education system and built power plants, dams, factories, and apartment blocs, still the most coveted in the country. If, in the last seven years, George W. Bush did not get the lights back on in the capital, or the water flowing, or dispose of the sewage or trash, how can we assume Barack Obama will do any better with the corrupt system he's about to inherit?
Between 2002 and 2008, the U.S. pledged $10.4 billion dollars in "development" (reconstruction) aid to Afghanistan, but actually delivered only $5 billion of that amount. Considering that the U.S. is spending $36 billion a year on the war in Afghanistan and about $8 billion a month on the war in Iraq, that $5 billion in development aid looks paltry indeed. But keep in mind that, in a country as poor as Afghanistan, a little well spent money can make a big difference.
The problem is not simply that the Bush administration skimped on aid, but that it handed it over to for-profit contractors. Privatization, as is now abundantly clear, enriches only the privateers and serves only their private interests.
Take one pertinent example. When the inspectors general of the Pentagon and State Department investigated the U.S. program to train the Afghan police in 2006, they found the number of men trained (about 30,000) to be less than half the number reported by the administration (70,000). The training had lasted eight weeks at most, with no in-the-field experience whatsoever. Only about half the equipment assigned to the police — including thousands of trucks — could be accounted for, and the men trained were then deemed "incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work."
The American privateer training the police — DynCorp — went on to win no-bid contracts to train police in Iraq with similar results. The total bill for American taxpayers from 2004 to 2006: $1.6 billion. It's unclear whether that money came from the military or the development budget, but in either case it was wasted. The inspectors general reported that police incompetence contributed directly to increased opium production, the reinvigoration of the Taliban, and government corruption in general, thoroughly subverting much ballyhooed U.S. goals, both military and political.
In the does-no-one-ever-learn category: the latest American victory plan, announced in December, calls for recruiting and rearming local militias to combat the Taliban. Keep in mind that hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly donated by Japan, have already been spent to disarm local militias. A proposal to rearm them was soundly defeated last fall in the Afghan Parliament. Now, it's again the plan du jour, rubber-stamped by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Afghans protest that such a plan amounts to sponsoring civil war, which, if true, would mean that American involvement in Afghanistan might be coming full circle — civil war being the state in which the U.S. left Afghanistan at the end of our proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. American commanders, however, insist that they must use militias because Afghan Army and police forces are "simply not available." Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, deputy commander of American forces, told the New York Times, "We don't have enough police, [and] we don't have time to get the police ready." This, despite the State Department's award to DynCorp last August of another $317.4 million contract "to continue training civilian police forces in Afghanistan," a contract DynCorp CEO William Ballhaus greeted as "an opportunity to contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the world [and] support our government's efforts to improve people's lives."
In other areas less obviously connected to security, American aid policy is no less self-serving or self-defeating. Although the Bush administration handpicked the Afghan president and claims to want to extend his authority throughout the country, it refuses to channel aid money through his government's ministries. (It argues that the Afghan government is corrupt, which it is, in a pathetic, minor league sort of way.)
Instead of giving aid money for Afghan schools to the Ministry of Education, for example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds private American contractors to start literacy programs for adults. As a result, Afghan teachers abandon the public schools and education administrators leave the Ministry for higher paying jobs with those contractors, further undermining public education and governance. The Bush administration may have no particular reason to sabotage its handpicked government, but it has had every reason to befriend private contractors who have, in turn, kicked back generously to election campaigns and Republican coffers.
There are other peculiar features of American development aid. Nearly half of it (47%) goes to support "technical assistance." Translated, that means overpaid American "experts," often totally unqualified — somebody's good old college buddies — are paid handsomely to advise the locals on matters ranging from office procedures to pesticide use, even when the Afghans neither request nor welcome such advice. By contrast, the universally admired aid programs of Sweden and Ireland allocate only 4% and 2% respectively to such technical assistance, and when asked, they send real experts. American technical advisors, like American privateers, are paid by checks — big ones — that pass directly from the federal treasury to private accounts in American banks, thus helping to insure that about 86 cents of every dollar designated for U.S. "foreign" aid anywhere in the world never leaves the U.S.A.
American aid that actually makes it abroad arrives with strings attached. At least 70% of it is "tied" to the purchase of American products. A food aid program, for example, might require Afghanistan to purchase American agricultural products in preference to their own, thus putting Afghan farmers out of business or driving even more of them into the poppy trade. (The percentage of aid from Sweden, Ireland, and the United Kingdom that is similarly tied: zero.)
Testifying before a congressional subcommittee on May 8, 2001, Andrew Natsios, then head of USAID, described American aid as "a key foreign policy instrument [that] helps nations prepare for participation in the global trading system and become better markets for U.S. exports." Such so-called aid cuts American business in right from the start. USAID has even developed a system for "preselecting" certain private contractors, then inviting only those preselected companies to apply for contracts the agency wants to issue.
Often, in fact, only one of the preselected contractors puts in for the job and then — if you need a hint as to what's really going on — just happens to award subcontracts to some of the others. It's remarkable, too, how many former USAID officials have passed through the famed revolving door in Washington to become highly paid consultants to private contractors — and vice versa. By January 2006, the Bush administration had co-opted USAID altogether. The once independent aid agency launched by President Kennedy in 1961 became a subsidiary of the State Department and a partner of the Pentagon.
Oh, and keep in mind one more thing: While the private contractors may be in it for the duration, most employees and technical experts in Afghanistan stay on the job only six months to a year because it's considered such a "hardship post." As a result, projects tend not to last long and to be remarkably unrelated to those that came before or will come after. Contractors collect the big bucks whether or not the aid they contracted to deliver benefits Afghans, or even reaches them.
These arrangements help explain why Afghanistan remains such a shambles.
The Afghan Scam
It's not that American aid has done nothing. Check out the USAID website and you'll find a summary of what is claimed for it (under the glorious heading of "Afghanistan Reborn"). It will inform you that USAID has completed literally thousands of projects in that country. The USAID loves numbers, but don't be deceived by them. A thousand short-term USAID projects can't hold a candle to one long, careful, patient program run, year after year, by a bunch of Afghans led by a single Swede.
If there has been any progress in Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul, it's largely been because two-thirds of the reconstruction aid to Afghanistan comes from other (mostly European) countries that do a better job, and partly because the country's druglords spend big on palatial homes and services in the capital. But the one-third of international aid that is supposed to come from the U.S., and that might make a critical difference when added to the work of others, eternally falls into the wrong pockets.
What would Afghans have done differently, if they'd been in charge? They'd have built much smaller schools, and a lot more of them, in places more convenient to children than to foreign construction crews. Afghans would have hired Afghans to do the building. Louis Berger Group had the contract to build more than 1,000 schools at a cost of $274,000 per school. Already way behind schedule in 2005, they had finished only a small fraction of them when roofs began to collapse under the snows of winter.
Believe me, given that same $274,000, Afghans would have built 15 or 20 schools with good roofs. The same math can be applied to medical clinics. Afghans would also have chosen to repair irrigation systems and wells, to restore ruined orchards, vineyards, and fields. Amazingly enough, USAID initially had no agricultural programs in a country where rural subsistence farmers are 85% of the population. Now, after seven years, the agency finally claims to have "improved" irrigation on "nearly 15%" of arable land. And you can be sure that Afghans wouldn't have chosen — again — the Louis Berger Group to rebuild the 389-mile long Kabul/Kandahar highway with foreign labor at a cost of $1 million per mile.
As things now stand, Afghans, as well as Afghan-Americans who go back to help their homeland, have to play by American rules. Recently an Afghan-American contractor who competed for reconstruction contracts told me that the American military is getting in on the aid scam. To apply for a contract, Afghan applicants now have to fill out a form (in English!) that may run to 50 pages. My informant, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, commented that it's next to impossible to figure out "what they look for." He won a contract only when he took a hint and hired an American "expert" — a retired military officer — to fill out the form. The expert claimed the "standard fee" for his service: 25% of the value of the contract.
Another Afghan-American informed me that he was proud to have worked with an American construction company building schools with USAID funds. Taken on as a translator, he persuaded the company not only to hire Afghan laborers, but also to raise their pay gradually from $1.00 per day to $10.00 per day. "They could feed their families," he said, "and it was all cost over-run, so cost didn't matter. The boss was already billing the government $10.00 to $15.00 an hour for labor, so he could afford to pay $10.00 a day and still make a profit." My informant didn't question the corruption in such over-billing. After all, Afghans often tack on something extra for themselves, and they don't call it corruption either. But on this scale it adds up to millions going into the assumedly deep pockets of one American privateer.
Yet a third Afghan-American, a businessman who has worked on American projects in his homeland, insisted that when Bush pledged $10.4 billion in aid, President Karzai should have offered him a deal: "Give me $2 billion in cash, I'll kick back the rest to you, and you can take your army and go home."
"If Karzai had put the cash in an Afghan bank," the businessman added, "and spent it himself on what people really need, both Afghanistan and Karzai would be in much better shape today." Yes, he was half-joking, but he wasn't wrong.
Don't think of such stories, and thousands of others like them, as merely tales of the everyday theft or waste of a few hundred million dollars — a form of well-organized, routine graft that leaves the corruption of Karzai's government in the shade and will undoubtedly continue unremarked upon in the Obama years. Those multi-millions that will continue to be poured down the Afghan drain really represent promises made to a people whose country and culture we have devastated more than once. They are promises made by our government, paid for by our taxpayers, and repeatedly broken.
These stories, which you'll seldom hear about, are every bit as important as the debates about military strength and tactics and strategy in Afghanistan that dominate public discourse today. Those promises, made in our name, were once said to be why we fight; now — broken — they remind us that we've already lost.
Ann Jones wrote at length about the failure of American aid in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan Books), a book about American meddling in Afghanistan as well as her experience as a humanitarian aid worker there from 2002 to 2006. For more information, visit her website. For a concise report on many of the defects in international aid mentioned here, check out Real Aid (pdf file), a report issued in 2005 by the South African NGO Action Aid.
Copyright 2009 Ann Jones
The Afghan Scam
The morning after the U.S. hit Iraq with Shock and Awe, I went out to the street in Kabul—the Street of Martyrs, as it happened—to face Sharif, my driver. He was in a deep, sorrowful rage. “Already you forget Afghanistan,” he said. “Just like before.”
“Before” was 1992, after the Soviet occupation. Soviet troops had already gone home when we dispatched the Afghan mujahidin—our proxy Cold Warriors—to bring down the central government they’d left behind. Then we abandoned the country to civil war. Every Afghan remembers that American betrayal.
Suddenly, the Bush administration recalls it too. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently warned Canadians, alarmed by their soldiers’ rising death toll, against abandoning Afghanistan “again.” Rice said, “The consequences will come back to haunt us.”
The consequences the first time around were bad enough. For Afghans, the chaos of civil war led to the rule of the Sharia-law-and-order Taliban, sponsored—some say invented—by Pakistan and funded by Saudi Arabia, America’s odd “allies” in the region. For the U.S., a series of al-Qaeda attacks culminated in 9/11 and the belated realization that the Islamist extremists we’d sent against the Soviets in Afghanistan were not our good buddies after all.
But the question today is not simply—as it is framed in regard to Iraq—whether U.S. troops should stay or go. It’s more like: Where have we been?
Taking a line from Republicans, Senator Kerry charged that George W. Bush had “cut and run” from Afghanistan to Iraq. A more thoughtful assessment, prepared in 2004 for the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul, found that the U.S. and its international allies had never moved in to Afghanistan, never made “the necessary commitments and investments,” in the first place. In March 2004, the Berlin Conference on Afghanistan warned that such “minimal effort” continued “too long” would “adversely affect… the commitments” Afghans were asked to make to the new “democratic” Afghanistan. That’s what happened.
Meanwhile, the Taliban went on fighting, weather permitting, and slipped over the border to Pakistan in the off season for further study and training. They returned each spring a little stronger; and last spring they came back in force. Mullah Dadullah reportedly had 12,000 men at arms in the south, plus 400 suicide bombers, though U.S. and NATO forces—operating in “body-count” mode familiar from Vietnam—claim to have decimated them in recent weeks. Countless civilians, many of them women and children, have been killed as well by U.S. air “support.”
As combat heated up last spring, the U.S. announced plans to withdraw 6,000 troops and turn “reconstruction and development” over to NATO. British Lt. Gen. David Richards arrived in the south last summer with about 8,000 troops to find no reconstruction or development underway. He told reporters that he feared his British peacekeepers were at least two years too late. Entering villages to win hearts and minds, they first announced, “We are not Americans.”
But instead of building schools, his troops got ambushed and sucked into what the British press describes as the heaviest combat operations since World War II. Outnumbered, NATO called for reinforcements. It’s a measure of international faith in U.S. policies, five years after 9/11, that only Poland reluctantly agreed to send some soldiers “next year.” Canada, which had meant to help with reconstruction, agreed to send tanks. The U.S. dropped plans to extract troops and quietly sent more.
All along, Afghans have been yearning for disarmament, security, and peace. But the U.S. did things backward—pushing for a constitution, elections, a government (of the same old warlords)—all the trappings of democracy without ever negotiating anything like peace. “A breathtaking achievement,” Donald Rumsfeld called it, only months after the invasion. Yet U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said recently that it was a “big mistake” not to talk to the Taliban, who are after all Afghans. What is democracy if not a mechanism to enable disparate factions to live together?
Without peace, there can be no security. And without security, no development. American “development” in any case is a peculiarly narcissistic affair: an aid program utterly privatized, with multi-million-dollar no-bid contracts going to American corporations distinguished mainly by their political connections. It’s another dandy scheme for transferring taxpayer dollars to the pockets of the already rich.
So it happens that now, having broken our promises—through greed, guile, inattention or simple incompetence—we offer Afghans more war.
Only weeks ago, President Karzai—our very own man in Kabul—pleaded with the U.S. to change course and stop killing Afghans. In response, Secretary of State Rice flew to Kabul to announce that the U.S. would fight to the death of the last Talib. That’s a no-win no-brainer since Taliban multiply daily in response to foreign occupation, but it seems now to be American policy.
Only Pakistan has made a kind of peace with Taliban who rule Waziristan (and may well harbor bin Laden) on the Afghan border. Waziri elders recently offered to convene a loya jirga to mediate a similar truce between the Karzai government and the Taliban of southern Afghanistan. It’s safe to bet that Condi will quash that—so keen is this administration on military, not diplomatic, “solutions,” especially when other armies do the fighting, and so eager to overlook the double-dealing of Pakistan, its peculiar pal in its endless misbegotten War on Terror.
Often it seems that Bush and Karzai are not on the same side. Addressing the general assembly of the U.N., President Karzai complains again about that neighbor (Pakistan) that fosters the Taliban; and he thanks another president for all he’s done to maintain peace and stability in the region—President Ahmadinejad of Iran. An Australian news agency asks: Do our troops fight for Afghanistan or for George W. Bush?
To muster such perplexed allies, Secretary Rice warns against abandoning Afghanistan again on the grounds that “we” can’t afford to leave a “failed state” in that strategic part of the world—especially not one that this administration, through its own failings, has manufactured itself.
Ann Jones is the author of Kabul In Winter, published by Metropolitan Books. An authority on women and violence, her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Nation.